Delphine of the Blades, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, considered herself a fortunate woman when all was said and done. Granted, her life had been a hard and lonely one, but the last six months or so had turned things around. She'd gone from being a humble innkeeper (albeit one with many years espionage experience) to the head of Tamriel's most feared order of assassins with a secret mountain hideaway, a serious amount of gold at her disposal, the patronage of the local king and not only an adoring and handsome Dragonborn husband, but a beautiful and passionate young lady friend. Rare was the morning she didn't wake up with one or both of them wrapped around her and rare was the morning she didn't smile at whoever she was with and thank the gods and Night Mother for her good fortune.
Today was not one of those mornings.
“You can't wear that to my father's wedding!”
“CICERO DOESN'T CARE! CICERO NEVER LEAVES HOME WITHOUT IT! CICERO IS WEARING IT!”
“Not as my date, you're not! Come on, give it to me, please.”
“NO! Thieving hussy, leave me alone!”
“Cicero, you're the official escort of the Reach-King's youngest daughter! You can't wear that! Do you have any idea how it'll make me look?”
“Like the brazen little hussy you are??”
“Cicero, I'm serious, give me the damn-”
“THAT'S ENOUGH!” Delphine cried, flinging the bedroom doors open and stepping out into the private parlour attached. It was a truly nice suite of rooms at the Blue Palace, a double room for her and Cicero, a central parlour and a room for Eola on the other side. It was just a shame Cicero and Eola were behaving like such spoilt brats.
Still in her night shift, with a hastily flung on robe over the top, Delphine wearily emerged into the parlour. At least both of them had the grace to look ashamed of themselves. Eola was still in her undershift – she'd need help with her outfit. Cicero was already decked out in breeches and boots, white shirt hanging open and dark blue frock coat over the top, just needing fastening and tucking in and his cravat tying. Delphine had gone to a lot of lengths to find the latest High Rock fashions for Madanach's party and Cicero had been not only compliant but very excited to be dressing up in fancy clothes and at the prospect of being admired by all and sundry. It seemed she'd been a little too optimistic.
“Cicero, you are not wearing your jester hat to the wedding,” Delphine sighed. “You're there as the Dragonborn. You need to look the part as the Saviour of Skyrim, Avenger of Torygg, He Who Speaks With Dragons and with any luck, a credible marriage candidate for Eola's hand so she doesn't get suitors trying to win her over all the time.”
“She should be so lucky,” Cicero muttered darkly. Eola shot him a pointed glare before turning to Delphine.
“Oh Del, honey, it's not the hat. I only wish it was the hat, that I could steal and get Sapphire to hide until it was all over.”
Delphine scratched her head, confused. What else did Cicero never leave the house without and was averse to leaving behind? She'd already said it was fine for High Rock noblemen to carry daggers.
“The hussy Eola wants me to leave my wedding ring behind!” Cicero wailed, turning to Delphine, anguished. “Cicero never leaves that behind! He only takes it off to bathe, in bed and for oiling Mother or performing other messy tasks that might damage it!”
Delphine felt her irritation fade as her heart went out to him. Theirs had been a simple ceremony in Riften as opposed to the extravaganza this promised to be, but Cicero had been near tears as Maramal the priest had handed over the rings and Delphine had slid his onto his finger. They'd left the Temple arm in arm, heading to the Ratway where Brynjolf had been kind enough to throw a party for them at the Flagon. While the rest of the Dark Brotherhood had drank and danced the night away, Cicero had rarely left her side, sighing happily and staring at the ring like a man possessed.
“If you're not careful, I'll start to think you love that ring more than me,” she'd teased. He'd looked guilty and immediately apologised.
“No, no, never Listener!” he'd cried. “But it is proof, don't you see? Proof that this is all really happening and that Cicero is really loved! It means I belong to someone.”
She'd kissed him on the spot, reassuring him that he was and he did. While he did indeed take it off in bed, in the bath and for the Night Mother, he never removed it at any other time. Not normally a problem, but at a wedding half of Skyrim was attending, it really wouldn't do for the groom's unmarried daughter, a Princess of the Reach, to have a married man on her arm.
“She's right, Cicero,” Delphine said with a sigh. “You'll have to leave your wedding ring behind. It'll bring us attention and we don't want that.”
Cicero's face fell as he realised he'd lost the argument. There was no throwing tantrums around Delphine, not if he didn't want to end up getting spanked for his trouble anyway.
“But Listener,” said Cicero, turning sad eyes on her, “what if Cicero forgets? What if his mind slips and he starts to think it was all a dream? How will he know he's still yours?”
Delphine took him into her arms. He actually did look genuinely afraid that might happen.
“What are the chances of you forgetting you're in love with me?” said Delphine gently. “You never did all the way through Skuldafn and Sovngarde, and you were gone for weeks!”
Cicero nestled in to her, seeming to calm down. “But if I did, the ring would remind me I had someone, and then I could at least look for you even if I didn't know who you were. If Cicero's not got his wedding ring, why, who knows where he might end up?”
“I am sure you'd find me eventually,” said Delphine, ruffling his hair. “And even if you never knew to look, I would. I'd do everything in my power to find you, love. I wouldn't stop until my Keeper was home and safe.”
Cicero giggled and squirmed, peeping up through his eyelashes as he always did when she called him her Keeper. Really, he was too adorable. She was a lucky woman.
“So, you're going to give me the ring then,” she said softly. Cicero nodded, still a little unhappy, but he took it off and placed it in her hand.
“You'll keep it safe, won't you, Listener?” he whispered. “You'll have it there for me when I get back, yes?”
“Of course I will,” Delphine promised. “Now, go and finish getting yourself ready. Madanach's probably waiting for you. Off you go, let's not keep the Reach-King waiting, hmm?” She gave Cicero a playful smack on the arse to encourage him. Cicero shrieked, in delight this time, and scampered off to find a mirror so he could finish preening.
Eola sidled over for a cuddle of her own.
“How do you do that?” she pouted. “I tried everything but he stood firm, and all you do is stroke his hair for like ten seconds, and suddenly he's all smiles and sunshine and doing whatever you want.”
“It's a mystical power granted by the Night Mother,” said Delphine, kissing the top of Eola's head. “The ability to sweet-talk Cicero into anything. That and a good beating every Loredas. Keeps him on his toes.”
“I bet it does,” Eola smirked. She looked up at Delphine, expression softening. “You're awesome, you know. I love you so much.”
Delphine tilted her head, unable to stop grinning as Eola's lips met hers. The two of them kissed, getting increasingly more passionate until Cicero coughed politely.
“Listener and sister? Cicero is ready to leave now. Listener? Eola?”
Both women broke off, Delphine looking at least a little apologetic while Eola looked utterly unrepentant. She did however look Cicero over appreciatively.
“Ooh, don't you look tasty!”
“That has such a different meaning coming from you,” said Cicero, looking most uncomfortable, although that could be due to the cravat at his neck. “Well, Listener? Will I do?”
He would. He would indeed. “You are absolutely gorgeous,” Delphine breathed. Hair tied back with a black ribbon, black charcoal lining his eyes in the latest fashion out of Cyrodiil, and managing to have a dangerous look about him despite the ruffles at his wrists and throat, Cicero looked absolutely stunning. Delphine could imagine half the women in the place wanting to dance with him at the wedding party. She just wished she could be there, but with Thalmor starting to return and her needing to co-ordinate everything, she'd need to stay out of sight.
Cicero grinned and twirled on the spot so she could get a good look at him. Delphine smiled appreciatively. He was a gorgeous, gorgeous man. She was so lucky to have him.
“You get out there and show them, Dragonborn,” she told him. Cicero giggled and ran over, kissing her full on the lips, a long, slow passionate kiss that left her breathless.
“I love you, my Listener,” he crooned in her ear. “My sweet Delphine, dearest wife of mine.” His voice shook a little as he said the word wife, as it always did. She could hardly fault him for that, it still felt a little weird having a husband.
“I love you too,” she told him. “Go on, off you go. Make sure the groom's not having second thoughts.”
Cicero laughed, waved goodbye to Eola and ran off, the door closing behind him. They could still hear the laughing and singing, audible until it slowly faded away as Cicero ran down the stairs to Madanach's chambers.
“Sweet husband you got there,” said Eola, not quite able to keep the wistfulness out of her voice. Delphine hugged her, guessing all too well what was on Eola's mind. It wasn't wanting a husband or wife of her own, it wasn't even jealousy of Delphine. It was Eola's own feelings for Cicero that were getting less sisterly over time, as she'd finally broken down and confessed to Delphine about a month after they returned from their Cyrodiil honeymoon. Delphine hadn't even been that shocked to hear it. Unfortunately for Eola though, Cicero was quite adamantly not interested and had freaked out when Delphine had asked if he'd ever thought of her that way. The whole possibility had been quietly shelved but that didn't mean Eola's feelings had died.
“I'm sorry, love,” said Delphine. “He does care about you, you know. Even if he doesn't like showing it.”
“Yeah, but it's the taking care of me when I'm ill and making me laugh and going hunting with me kind of caring he has in mind,” Eola sighed, frustrated. “Not the hot loving kind and Del, your husband's a hottie. Did you see his arse in those trousers? I mean, wow. Cici's a pretty boy.”
“He is that,” said Delphine. She traced a finger down Eola's cheek, on to her shoulder and then down around the curve of her breast. “But you're pretty damn cute yourself. If he's not interested, well, it's his loss.”
Eola shivered, eyes fluttering closed as she rubbed up against Delphine.
“Honey, I am going to need to start getting ready soon, I'm going to be late if you start doing that. And no love bites! Not today!”
Delphine had pulled Eola close and was fondling her bottom, nibbling her lover's neck with not a care in the world. Laughing, she kissed her on the cheek and let her go.
“I do apologise,” said Delphine, not looking terribly sorry at all. “I'll try and make sure you don't turn up at the wedding looking completely manhandled. Or ladyhandled as the case may be.”
Eola laughed, reaching out a hand to Delphine. “Come on, make me over. You said you'd have me looking like a proper Breton noblewoman. Can't wait to see what you've got in store for me.”
“Beloved, I will have you coming second in looks only to the bride. Even my devoted and loyal but clearly not all there husband might start appreciating you,” Delphine promised, steering Eola into her bedroom. She settled Eola down in front of the desk mirror and began reaching for the make-up tray. “You know, if anything ever did happen between you and Cicero, I just want you to know I wouldn't mind. The two of you are normally so affectionate with each other, it seems a bit weird that you're not together, you know?”
“You just want hot threesomes,” said Eola knowingly. Delphine couldn't quite hide the look of hope in her eyes at that prospect.
“It's merely a nice bonus,” said Delphine, refusing to get distracted when she had a girlfriend to pretty up. “What's more important is that you're happy.”
“Right now, I'll settle for fabulous,” said Eola. “Today isn't my day, after all. I just want to get my father hitched and off on his wedding night, and then I just want to get some expensive booze down my throat and wipe the mental images from my head.”
Understandable really. Delphine just hoped Madanach and Elisif were doing well themselves. A marriage arranged for politics and a thirty six year age gap did not make for the most promising start, but Elisif had seemed calm, even cheerful, the day before and while Madanach wasn't exactly the romantic type, his eyes softened just that little bit when talking about Elisif. Delphine knew they'd been exchanging gifts and letters over the past few months, but only the gods knew how they actually felt this morning. As long as they got through the day without being assassinated, Delphine would rest content.
Elisif watched herself in the mirror as Erda set about applying her make-up for her. New dress hand-sewn from fine cloth of gold by Taarie and Endarie of Radiant Raiment, her usual circlet polished up so it shone, a pair of gold-coloured slippers with rubies sewn in – Elisif's wedding outfit was going to have everyone talking.
If it meant they shut up about her choice of husband, so much the better. Even her steward was getting in on the act.
“My Jarl, for the last time, are you absolutely sure about this?” Falk asked, pacing the room behind her.
“Yes, Falk,” Elisif sighed. “Yes, I'm sure about this. I've thought about it and I still think it's the best course for both Skyrim and the Reach.”
“And what about you, hmm?” Falk asked, looking rather shrewdly at her. “Torygg died barely a year ago and I know you still miss him. You met Madanach once, at that secret meeting during the war that you still won't tell me about. Don't tell me that was enough to make you fall in love with him.”
No, it wasn't... but it was enough to make me like and respect him, because out of everyone around me, he has been the one person who has consistently treated me like an adult and a queen and someone who can be trusted to think for myself! Unlike her steward. Who had been supposed to be thinking about retiring this year, after the war was over and things had settled down, in theory so he could put his feet up and take it easy after being steward to no less than three rulers of Skyrim. In practice, it was the worst kept secret in Solitude that he'd been having a fling with Thane Bryling and was going to resign to spend more time with her. Of course, that had been before she'd announced her forthcoming marriage to Madanach, and now Falk was insisting he was staying on to make sure she was all right. Elisif liked Falk, she really did, but he could be very overprotective. Too overprotective. Elisif hadn't realised until Falk changed his mind about going how much she'd been looking forward to being able to choose her own steward. Everyone in her court was inherited, everyone. Bryling and Erikur had both been Thanes since Torygg's father Istlod's day, Sybille had been court mage since forever, Bolgeir had been Torygg's housecarl first, and Falk had been promoted to steward by Istlod in the later years of his reign after his previous steward died. Torygg hadn't minded, he'd grown up with them, knew them, was happy to keep them on. But Elisif hadn't even lived in Skyrim before her marriage. Then she'd travelled to Solitude with her elderly father, who'd wanted to see his homeland again before he died. He'd lived long enough to see her go to a dance at the Bards' College, meet the son of the High King, fall in love and get married. Then High King Istlod had died, Torygg had become High King and she'd found herself Queen Consort, and that had been fine, no real responsibility other than to look pretty, look after her husband and hope the longed-for babies would come.
And then Ulfric had murdered her husband and her world had changed. Now here she was, a year on, Tullius might have gone back to Cyrodiil and the war might be done, but she was Queen of eight holds where seven of them were run by other Jarls who didn't have to actually obey her, where the national military was actually the Empire's troops under Rikke's command, and where even her own court ignored her most of the time. It needed a ruler to function but everyone in practice just stuck to the same routines they'd had since Istlod. Here she was, High Queen, and she probably had the least power of anyone here.
So when faced with a Forsworn barbarian more than twice her age, radiating power and menace and danger despite having dressed up for the occasion, who'd actually treated her like she really was a great and powerful queen, who'd treated her like an equal when she clearly was anything but... when he'd had the nerve to demand marriage to seal the alliance, she'd pushed the initial shock aside and said yes. Because while Madanach was not someone she'd ever have seen herself getting involved with in a million years, one thing he was not was a pushover. He had his own army, a little reduced since the end of the war, but still a force to be reckoned with and loyal to him, not the Empire. He didn't have to answer to anyone inside the Reach – there'd been one little rebellion after the treaties had been signed, where apparently the Matriarchs of Lost Valley Redoubt and a few camps along the Reach's eastern border had declared Madanach a traitor to the Reach and the old gods for selling the country to the Empire. That rebellion had lasted all of two weeks before being brutally put down, the assault on Lost Valley being led by Madanach in person, there were even rumours a dragon had been involved, and the rest of the Forsworn had been eager to hail Madanach as the one true Reach-King. Madanach had gleefully recounted the whole thing in one of his letters to her, and while he'd spared her the gory details (and refused to comment on the dragon), he'd said the old gods had indeed passed judgement but not on him. There'd been no trouble since. Elisif really envied him. His court had been hand-picked by him, his steward was an old friend and comrade, his housecarl a massively tall Orc who was frankly terrifying and yet apparently in awe of Madanach himself, only a five foot ten ageing Breton when all was said and done. The nearest thing he had to Thanes were his blood brothers who'd been in Cidhna Mine with him, all of them loyal to the death as well, and he had his daughters, both very capable in their own right. Kaie the Crown-Princess, Field Marshal of the Forsworn and effectively in charge of the Reach's military, and Eola, who held no formal rank beyond her hereditary title... but given her connections with both the legendary Dragonborn and the Dark Brotherhood, didn't really need one.
Everyone feared Madanach. Everyone respected his strength and cunning. Everyone had stories of Forsworn brutality, and after reading Legion reports and Madanach's own account of the Lost Valley Incident (Madanach had just remarked that while he'd spared those who'd surrendered, he'd ensured the rest would not be repeating their crimes – Rikke's report had told of smoke from Lost Valley visible for miles across the tundra, hundreds of Forsworn butchered in the battle and the ringleaders' charred and bloodied remains impaled on stakes and left above Lost Valley Falls for all to see) Elisif had seen the truth for herself. Madanach ap Caradach, King of the Reach, was a bad bad man.
And yet she still envied him. What could have been a civil war had been swiftly averted and indeed proved something of a turning point for the new ruler – apparently he'd never been so popular in Markarth. Elisif couldn't approve of his methods, but she wished she could be a bit more like him. Except without the murdering part, even if Madanach had justified Lost Valley by pointing out no Jarl anywhere would put up with half the guard deciding they were going to declare independence and that it was perfectly legal to execute traitors. Which was true, but did he have to be quite so extreme in his methods?
She supposed it was asking a bit much of him to suddenly turn into an avatar of sweetness and light overnight. She just hoped he'd be a more forgiving husband than he was a king. All the same... he'd been perfectly sweet to her, and the citizens of Markarth seemed to think he was wonderful. He couldn't be all bad.
“I am marrying him, Falk,” said Elisif, her voice level despite the little shiver in her stomach whenever she thought of Madanach. “He's a good ally, and he's been a good friend to me and to Skyrim these last few months. I don't need love, I don't care about love, I loved Torygg but he's gone! Madanach offered, so I said yes.”
“You had a lot of offers,” said Falk quietly. “You had lords from all over High Rock and Hammerfell sending offers, you had interest from Morrowind and Cyrodiil, even a few Argonians. Why him?”
She had indeed. She'd had gifts and proposals from all over the place from nobles thinking a single woman in possession of a kingdom must be in want of a husband, and so she'd had to listen to declarations of love from all over Tamriel, boasts that so and so was the most virile, the wealthiest, would give her many fine sons, was a fine warrior or horseman or hunter or would lend a powerful army to her side. From Madanach, nothing. He'd written after the initial uprising, telling her it was done, the Reach was his and by the grace of the old gods, he'd hold it against Ulfric if it killed him and not to fear, he'd keep his promises to avenge her husband. Elisif had already heard the Legion report but Madanach's letter had made her want to punch the air. Take that, Ulfric. The Empire had the Reach back without having to do a thing themselves.
Then had come the invasion, Ulfric taking advantage of Balgruuf's indecision to sweep across the tundra unimpeded, over Broken Tower pass and down into the Karth river valley to lay siege to Markarth, and communications had fallen silent. Elisif had scoured every Legion report for news, heart in her mouth, hoping against hope Ulfric hadn't triumphed over Madanach again... but this time, Madanach appeared to have learnt his lesson. He'd later said training with the Dragonborn had been invaluable in defending against Ulfric's Thu'um, and apparently the untimely deaths of the Matriarchs of Dead Crone Rock and Karthspire prior to the uprising had removed two key political opponents of Madanach's and given him their entire camps to assist with the city defence. All the same, he'd written that it had been touch and go towards the end – food had been running out, morale was low, he'd been starting to wonder if Delphine was ever going to strike – and then they'd all seen that dragon descend and all Oblivion break loose and by the end of the day, the Stormcloaks had been no more. Elisif wished she'd been there – as it is, between dry Legion reports, travellers tales, and Madanach's own account, written to her after she'd pleaded for him to tell her the story, she'd pieced it together well enough. It had been a great victory, no doubt about it and when the news had come to Solitude, she'd actually screamed and wept from sheer joy and delight at it all being over. Madanach's own letter, simply saying that it was done, Ulfric was dead and Torygg avenged, and that he hoped she could at least rest easy now, then congratulating her on winning her throne, had left a tearful smile on her face for days. That had not been why he'd agreed to this whole business, but that he'd been able to appreciate what it meant for her was touching.
So after the Moot had met and everything had settled down, she'd ratified the Treaty of Markarth and settled down to await Madanach's formal proposal. And waited. And waited. Proposals had flooded in from all over, but not the Reach. Elisif should have been relieved, but she really hadn't been. She'd started to worry. She'd begun to wonder if he'd lost interest. She'd been torn between thinking at least she could marry someone else, and sad that it wasn't him offering. Finally she'd lost patience and written a letter to him tersely informing him she'd received offers from many admirers, all at least as eligible as him if not more so, and that if she didn't get a proposal off him soon, she was calling off the marriage alliance and marrying one of them.
Five days later, Kaie ap Madanach, Field Marshal of the Forsworn, Crown-Princess of the Reach and Heir to the Mournful Throne, had arrived in person with an honour guard of Forsworn, all dressed in traditional Forsworn gear but armed with fine ebony and glass weapons, war-painted and tattooed and generally looking terrifying, and presented her with a wooden gift box with the Wolf's Head of Solitude marked out on it in gold leaf.
She'd opened it to find a gold necklace in a strange twisted design Kaie had informed her was a traditional Reach knotwork design, with rubies embedded in its coils, and earrings to match. Accompanying it was a card folded in two and sealed by an odd silver-purple rune with an M emblazoned over a crowned eagle crest, just reading:
“No kingdom can thrive while its ruler is lonely,
No leader can rule while they're ruling alone.
Dance with me, Elisif, come be my Reach-Queen,
Bring new life to Skyrim, and love to your own.”
“Did he write this himself or get a bard to do it?” Elisif had whispered, sinking back into her throne, her legs shaking.
“Get a bard to do it?” Kaie had laughed. “A bard?? My lady, there are official military documents in the Reach that have had less secrecy surrounding them than the contents of that card. He's let no one see it, not me, not Nepos, not Eola, no one. It was sealed with his personal rune seal, keyed so only you could open it, and by the gods, he's been temperamental on the subject even for him. I don't know what you wrote to him, but he commissioned a very nice set of jewellery on the spot, told the smiths to work overtime to get it finished in four days, donated the rubies from his personal vault, and locked himself in his study drafting whatever was on that card for two days solid. Then sent me up here to deliver it and told me nothing was more important than you getting that box, nothing.”
Elisif hadn't been able to speak, just stare at the card and the jewellery, trying to get her head around the fact that she'd just had yet another proposal and that this one spoke not of the potential groom's own virtues nor was it making her any grand promises nor talking about all the children they were going to have. All it made was one single promise.
You won't be lonely any more. I will take care of you.
Elisif had felt her head swim and her heart ache and she'd cried out inside yes, yes, please, keep me company, I'm so lonely, I know we're not in love but I don't think I want that anyway, not yet. I'll even have sex if you want to, Dibella, no one's touched me in months, I need it, please...
“Tell him I accept,” Elisif whispered. Kaie's smile had widened into a look of pure delight and the Forsworn princess had actually squealed.
“He will be so pleased,” Kaie assured her. “He's been so anxious since he got that letter of yours, fevered like you wouldn't believe. Honestly, I think he'd have been relieved to get any answer, but that one... that one he'll like. You've really got to him, you know.”
Elisif had felt a strange little thrill at that, a dark, dangerous sensation of being helpless prey and having attracted the attention of a vicious, stalking predator which now had designs on her, of the Reach-King's darker desires descending on her and claiming her for his, and by Mara, it was wrong, it was near-blasphemous, but she wanted and craved Madanach in her bed, the dangerous and ruthless Scourge of the Nords taking her and ravaging her and conquering her in lieu of taking her country. She didn't care it'd probably hurt, that he'd not want to be gentle. She just wanted him to take her and use her for his own pleasure and then... then he'd take care of her and she'd never be alone again.
“Jarl Elisif?” Falk had asked, concerned. “What's going on? What did he want? What have you just agreed to?”
Elisif had pulled herself together and got to her feet, composing herself like a queen should and taking a deep breath. Maybe her court would complain, but they were not going to stop her doing this because she'd just given her word to the Reach-King, and Madanach was not a man you messed around, and after the Lost Valley Incident a mere month after the Battle of Markarth, everyone knew that.
“Falk,” she'd said. “Write polite letters to all my suitors and decline their offers with my most sincere regrets. Then contact Rorlund at the Temple of Divines and get me a list of dates the Temple's available for booking a wedding. I think Second Seed's a good month for weddings, don't you?”
“A wedding?” Falk had asked, confused. “But you just told me to reject all – oh no. Elisif. My queen, you haven't...”
“I'm marrying Madanach,” Elisif said, her voice calm and firm and carrying to the entire court. “Start preparing this city, Falk, because there's going to be a big wedding and I'm going to need to cater for guests, dignitaries and the entire retinue of the Reach-King. Kaie, stay here tonight, I'll need to write a proper reply to him thanking him for the gifts. I think it'll make lovely wedding jewellery, don't you think?”
Kaie had grinned and agreed it would indeed. Elisif had held the box to her as Falk had directed Kaie off to the guest suite. He'd looked horrified and betrayed, but he'd had no choice but to obey and get on with preparing. Elisif had brooked no refusals, not on this. But he'd still not entirely accepted the decision which was why even on the wedding morning he was still wanting to know why.
“Does it matter?” Elisif sighed, having long ago given up on trying to persuade Falk that Madanach wasn't that bad.
“Of course it matters!” Falk cried. “The man's a monster who massacred an entire settlement of his own people!”
“They'd declared him a traitor, were trying to plot a rebellion to oust him and were attacking travellers, of course he had to do something!” Elisif said wearily. “If Dragon Bridge did the same, I'd have to send the guards in too!”
“You'd at least negotiate first, or try to,” Falk pointed out. “His idea of negotiation was basically 'surrender or I slaughter you all'. He's shown not a shred of remorse since.”
“He'd never show it,” Elisif said quietly, fingering her necklace. “Doesn't mean he's got no regrets.” He gets lonely too. He'd never admit it to most, but he was willing to share it with me.
“Elisif, you can't keep making excuses for him,” Falk said, looking genuinely worried for her. “They say he had his first wife killed by the Dark Brotherhood because he'd grown tired of her. What happens when he grows tired of you or gets angry? I can't... you're my Jarl, my High Queen, if he hurts you...”
“He won't,” Elisif said, knowing in her heart that the tales told by Madanach's enemies were only half the story. “He's a better man than everyone says he is... and he's going to be my husband.”
Cicero waited patiently while the Forsworn guards on duty outside Madanach's suite called in to see if their king was up yet. There were footsteps, the door was flung open and Borkul the Beast, the seven foot tall Orc who served as Madanach's personal bodyguard was staring down at Cicero.
Cicero just smiled back. He had no fear of Borkul whatsoever. He'd fought the Orc before, and Borkul's broken left tusk would serve as a permanent reminder of who'd won.
“Hello Borkul,” Cicero purred. “Is dear Madanach in? Delphine and Eola wish to ensure he is well and ready to attend his wedding.”
Borkul growled back at Cicero. “He's up. No funny business, little man. I've got my eye on you. Now get inside.”
Cicero whistled cheerfully, skipping inside. Madanach proved to be in his private room, trying vainly to wrestle with his own cravat and failing.
“Gods dammit,” he swore. “What realm of Oblivion were these designed in?? I'm getting too old for this...” He noticed Cicero in the mirror, relief descending over him. “Thank Sithis. Get over here, Dragonborn. I presume you know how these things work?”
“Of course, of course,” Cicero murmured, turning Madanach round and deftly tying it for him. Most self-respecting male Cyrodiilian assassins soon learnt this sort of thing – made infiltrating high society so much easier. The knot in question was a popular one from about twenty years ago, but Cicero guessed no one in Skyrim was likely to know that.
“There,” said Cicero, satisfied. “Now the Reach-King truly looks the part of a worthy consort for fair Elisif.”
Madanach looked at himself in the mirror, grimacing. He wasn't used to clothes quite this formal and it showed.
“Damn High Rock Bretons,” he muttered. “Why'd they have to make their fancy clothes quite so uncomfortable, eh?”
“If it's any consolation, Eola tells me the women's clothing is worse,” said Cicero, feeling sympathetic. “But you do look very dashing and Elisif is sure to be impressed.”
“You think so?” Madanach asked hopefully. Cicero nodded, a little confused. He'd been under the impression this was a business arrangement, a marriage of convenience. Madanach didn't look remotely convenienced by any of this.
“Is, er, everything all right?” Cicero asked. “Only you look... nervous.”
“Of course I'm nervous!” Madanach shouted. “I'm about to get married to a woman not even half my age, the world is watching, she's a civilised young lady used to having the best of everything and her first husband was a handsome young man that everyone loved! What in the Void am I compared to that??”
“But you're King of an entire province,” Cicero said, scratching his head. “A rich province, especially since dear Thonar's widow tragically died during the uprising and all the Silver-Blood properties defaulted to the Crown. Dear Madanach might be advanced in years but he's hardly ineligible.”
“This was a terrible idea,” Madanach whispered, one hand resting on the wall as he stared at his reflection, hoping it would mysteriously mutate into that of a handsome young man with hands free of blood. “I feel like I'm forcing that sweet, innocent girl into marrying a man old enough to be her father to keep the peace. She could have had half of Tamriel and she chooses me because of some promise I extracted months ago because damn Nords never break their damn word even when there's a good reason. I know I promised I wouldn't ravage her but... Gods, Cicero, you can have an entire silver mine to yourself if you go to Elisif right now and tell her she doesn't have to do it. She likes you, she'll take the news better from you.”
Cicero folded his arms, eyes boring into the Reach-King's back. He'd not been at the conference, but Eola had told him Madanach had been most insistent a wedding was the only thing that would win over the Reachmen to getting on with Nords. Now he had changed his mind, after all the expense and the trouble they'd gone to getting ready for this? Absolutely not, Cicero was not having this, not at all.
“Now listen here,” he snapped. “Delphine's gone to a lot of trouble to ensure this all goes smoothly, and Cicero has spent the last month attempting to teach your daughter how to dance and comport herself like a proper lady, which has resulted in sore feet, headaches, frustration, tears and a great deal of fine mead consumed by poor Cicero as he attempts to recover from the trauma. Madanach is marrying the High Queen or Cicero will become very angry!”
Most people on seeing Cicero's expression would have quailed in terror. Madanach watched Cicero's reflection in the mirror, caught his eye and promptly burst out laughing.
“My girl's been giving you a hard time, has she?”
“Yes!” Cicero shouted. “Cicero went to a lot of trouble trying to get her to act half-way civilised and he's not seeing the effort go to waste! This wedding is happening!!”
“Well, far be it from me to anger the Dragonborn and deprive my little girl of a chance to show off to the world,” Madanach laughed, his nerves fading a little. “I don't really suppose I have much choice at this point, do I?” He hesitated, looking back at his own reflection. “You really think Elisif will like this?”
“Why not?” Cicero asked. “Madanach is the one who has been writing to Elisif and sending her gifts these past few months. Surely she has been writing back? Surely she would have said if she was unhappy?”
Madanach reached into his pocket and produced a crumpled letter, smoothing it out to read. From the state of it, it looked like he'd done this frequently.
“Here, read it,” he said, thrusting the letter at Cicero. “It's the most recent one she sent, from a week ago.”
Cicero went over it.
I hope this finds you well – I know you're still busy trying to sort out the aftermath of the war and Lost Valley and everything else. Is it really only a week to go? Time's just flown by. I'm a little nervous about it all, but looking forward to it. I can't believe I'm getting married again! There was a time right after Torygg died when I couldn't even think about the possibility. Now I'm not only thinking about it, I'm actually happy. I still miss Torygg, but he's in Sovngarde now and I'm still here and only twenty three. I could be alive for another fifty years, I can't be alone all that time, I just can't. You could live another twenty – it's better than nothing. If I have to marry anyone, I'm glad it's going to be you. You're not the monster everyone says you are – you're just really good at hiding your better nature from outsiders. I do feel very honoured to no longer be one in your eyes. It means a lot to me.
We've been working flat-out to get everything ready for you here in Solitude. The Temple has been swept, the candles ready, flowers brought in. The entire Palace has been cleaned (apart from the Pelagius Wing but no one goes in there) and there's an entire floor been set aside for your party. I know your Steward Nepos sent the numbers already, please thank him for that. Our Friend has been in touch as well, and her people have been here for the last week, vetting everybody and checking the rooms over. I think she might be a bit paranoid, but if you trust her to do a good job, I will listen to her. I wouldn't want anything to spoil the day for us.
I'm really looking forward to the wedding, and to seeing you again. Please let me know if there's anything else you're going to need, I'll do my best to see to it. I must confess, I'm a little nervous, more so than with Torygg. I knew him quite well by the time we got married, I'd spent a lot of time with him. I've not seen you at all since that conference where we first met. But I've enjoyed reading your letters. You've been such a gentleman and so kind and helpful and patient. You must think I'm such a foolish girl sometimes. I promise not to keep bombarding you with questions, it's just I've only been a Jarl less than a year and Queen hardly any time at all. I know you've not been Reach-King long either, but you held the Reach once before, didn't you? And you've been leading the Forsworn for longer than I've been alive. So you must know a thing or two about leadership, right?
I want to be a good Queen, I really do. That's why I'm doing this. I know you're only allowed to be a consort, not a joint King, but part of ruling is having a good consort to help. Torygg always told me that. He said I was a very good consort. I think he was a very good King, it's just a shame he had so little time. I hope I can live up to his memory.
There I go again, thinking about Torygg when I should have my mind on you. I'm sorry, I'll try and stop that. But this time last year I was his wife and now I'm marrying you. It takes some adjusting to. I do promise to try and be a good wife to you though. You're a good man, Madanach, and you deserve to be a happy one. I'll do my best, I just hope it's enough.
Come to Solitude soon. I'm looking forward to it.
Cicero folded the letter and passed it back, grinning.
“Madanach has nothing to worry about,” said Cicero gently. “Elisif does not sound like a woman who doesn't want to marry you.”
“Not a woman in love though, is she?” Madanach sighed. “She's still grieving Torygg, that's obvious to all. And he was a handsome young man. I have a feeling she's going to be horribly disappointed when she gets me to herself.”
“And?” Cicero asked, puzzled. “This is business, you said so yourself according to the Listener. So what if she's not in love?” He tilted his head, looking closer at Madanach. The Reach-King looked nervous. Very nervous. As nervous as Cicero had been before his own wedding, climbing up the walls of a Riften inn room, wailing to Calixto and Lucien and Aventus about what if he was imagining the whole thing or the Listener changed her mind or realised she preferred Eola and Cicero got there to find out she'd married her instead or... Lucien had pulled him into an embrace and told him rather sternly to summon his mother and wail to her, while Calixto had cheerfully explained to young Aventus that this was an integral part of any wedding preparation, for the groom to have a nervous breakdown and for his male friends to derive great entertainment from the fact while ensuring he did actually turn up. Cicero had assumed that didn't apply to political weddings. Unless...
“Does Madanach have feelings for the Lady Elisif?” Cicero enquired. Madanach slumped into a chair, looking defeated.
“Fell in love with her the moment I first saw her,” he admitted. “She's a sweet, beautiful young thing. Well, you've met her, you know. This marriage makes sense politically, and gods know it'd be no hardship for me having her in my bed. But I don't think she feels the same, and why would she? Oh sure, she sounds willing enough, but I'm not sure how I feel about having a wife who's only with me out of duty.”
“So you'd rather... not have her at all?” Cicero asked, still a little puzzled. It would break his heart to learn Delphine had only married him out of duty but he'd never give her up if she was still willing to stay anyway.
“I'd like her to be happy,” said Madanach, staring moodily at fingernails that had been trimmed and manicured for the first time in his life, as if cosmetic grooming could hide the fact he was a brutally efficient ender of lives and virtually the polar opposite of Elisif. “With someone she cares about. She's an innocent young girl, she certainly doesn't deserve me.”
“Whereas humiliating her in front of everyone by jilting her and leaving her at the altar, that will make her ecstatic,” said Cicero, beginning to lose patience. “Madanach, if you don't marry her, someone else eventually will and you won't be at all happy! And Cicero will probably end up getting called in to eviscerate the poor man she chooses, which is lovely for me and profitable for the Brotherhood – hmm. Yes, yes, Cicero can sneak you out of here now, break the news to poor Elisif for you and then cheerfully await all the contracts on her future lovers. Madanach, this is a marvellous plan! Any preferences on how you want them killed?” Cicero folded his hands together and danced on the spot, delight in his eyes, although he did feel a little bad for poor Elisif who emphatically did not deserve to have everyone she loved slaughtered. Madanach was looking faintly horrified by this point, and this was someone who'd run his own assassination ring for years.
“You're insane,” said Madanach, blunt as always and one of the few people absolutely not afraid to call Cicero exactly what he was to his face. He got to his feet, checking himself in the mirror and adjusting his outfit a little. “Come on, I suppose I can hardly back out now. Let's go see if everyone else is ready, then we're all assembling in the hall. Let's hope my daughters aren't taking forever to get their outfits together.”
Cicero followed him out, still not entirely sure what was going on in Madanach's head or if he actually wanted to get married or not, but as long as he went through with the wedding, that was the main thing.
All the groom's party was assembling in the Blue Palace's hallway, all looking most unlike themselves and in varying degrees of discomfort with the formal clothing. There were a few guards in Forsworn armour standing on the edges, all glaring at any passing Nord and generally doing their best to look intimidating. Nepos had been left back home to take care of Markarth, but Kaie was there in a glittering dress with Borkul on her arm and her warpaint off for once, and Cicero recognised a few other faces from Cidhna Mine. Argis the Bulwark, former guard and now housecarl of the Brotherhood, was also among them, standing to attention as he saw Cicero arrive.
“At your service, Keeper,” he nodded. Cicero still wasn't sure what to think of the man, but Madanach seemed to think he was reliable, he'd helped defend Markarth during the siege and he seemed loyal. All the same, Cicero couldn't help but think Argis disapproved. Well, if Cicero was honest, he couldn't even tell what was going on in Argis' head. Unusual. Most people were easy to read. Argis wasn't, not at all. Still, until he proved disloyal, Cicero could do nothing other than take him at face value.
“Any sign of Eola yet?” Cicero asked. Argis shook his head.
“None. Listener's still getting her ready.”
“We'll be here all day then,” Cicero muttered, already bored. He glanced over at the locked door to the disused Pelagius Wing and wondered if one of the maids might have a key. It'd be the perfect place to hide bodies...
There was a noise from the balcony and Cicero looked up to see a young noblewoman descending in a flowing pale green and white dress, intricate Breton embroidery in silver thread all over it, long golden hair trailing down her back from a black and gold version of the headdress worn by Forsworn warrior women, and a black silk patch with jewels attached covering her left eye. Cicero could tell all of it was enchanted in some way or another – magicka or Destruction enhancers perhaps? Maybe. Cicero didn't recognise her but once upon a time, many years ago, he'd have been moving in to seduce. She was wielding a fan that looked Akaviri to Cicero's eyes, black and mother of pearl with black silk folds and a golden dragon woven on it, hiding the lower half of her face. Probably for the best, as that dress's bodice was drawn in at the waist and doing amazing things to the woman's breasts. Damn Bretons, designing these uncomfortable clothes that nevertheless hugged you in all the right places, smoothing down some areas and emphasising others and... Cicero was just very glad Delphine was not here, that was all.
The woman descended the stairs and snapped her fan closed.
“Will I do?” she grinned, and Cicero felt his throat go dry as he recognised her. He knew that voice all too well.
“Eola?” he managed to croak. Eola just looked very smug as she glided forward.
“What's wrong, Champ? Don't like my outfit? Delphine and Taarie spent ages working on this.”
“It's very nice,” said Cicero faintly. “Goes with your, er, where did the hair come from?? You had short hair this morning!”
“Hair extensions,” said Eola crisply. “Aren't they a wonderful invention?”
Cicero just nodded, wondering when it had suddenly got quite so warm and trying very hard to remind himself that she was not a beautiful young noblewoman, she was a murdering cannibal who liked to feast on the flesh of her victims and bathe in the blood. Unfortunately, it didn't help, in fact it was making matters worse.
“Is that my little girl in there?” Madanach strode forward and took Eola's hand, formally kissing the back of it.
“Da!” Eola laughed, fanning herself in a most coquettish manner that really didn't suit her in Cicero's eyes. “Look, Delphine got me a pretty outfit!”
“I shall be sure and thank her,” said Madanach, kissing her cheek. “Ah, but look at you, you're going to have every man in the place making eyes at you. Oh Sithis, does that mean I'm going to have to start entertaining all the suitors now?”
“Oh, you'd love it,” Eola laughed. “You'd get to send them off to wrestle bears or strangle Spriggans or deal with dragons to prove their worthiness, that's if they could get the courage up to talk to you in the first place.”
“If they're that spineless, they're not worthy,” Madanach growled. He patted Cicero on the back. “Well now, Dragonborn, you take care of my little girl, you hear? Make sure no one decides Reachwomen are easy and that they want to take advantage, hmm?”
“Yes, quite,” said Cicero faintly as the Reach-King went off to start organising everyone and leading them off to the Temple to await Elisif. Eola smiled and took his arm, still fanning herself.
“Are you alright?” she asked, looking strangely at him. “You're not normally this quiet.”
“Hmm? Oh! No, no, Cicero is fine,” Cicero lied, forcing himself to smile as he fell into step behind Kaie and Borkul and barely managing to not stare at Eola's cleavage. She was his sister, if not by blood then certainly in other ways. It was wrong. Very wrong indeed. He was married now, for Sithis' sake. He was the Listener's and not free to go fondling other women, not without her permission, which he definitely didn't have and was unlikely to get. Particularly not as Eola was also the Listener's, and if he started getting involved with her too, the Listener would have no one to tend to her. No, no, this was a terrible idea from start to finish.
Eola rapped him on the knuckles with her fan, startling him back to himself.
“Are you listening to a word I've been saying?” she snapped.
“Yes!” yelped Cicero. “Er. What were you saying?” Eola rolled the one eye he could see.
“I was asking if you'd spoken to Da this morning. He seemed a bit on edge. Is he OK?”
Now this was safer. Much safer. Focus on Madanach's love life and not his own traitorous libido, yes, much safer.
“He is a little anxious, yes. Most men are when they're about to get married, but Madanach is a bit worried Elisif will be disappointed. Apparently he is feeling guilty over forcing a sweet and innocent young thing to marry him.”
“He's not forcing her!” said Eola, surprised. “She was quite willing at that conference – she was reluctant at first, but in the space of about ten minutes talking to him, she'd changed her mind and was starting to flirt with him. Because my Da's a silver fox.”
“Yes, and one with feelings,” said Cicero, trying not to laugh because it wasn't funny watching the fearsome King of the Reach lose it over a woman, it really wasn't. “He's in love with her and really wants her to feel the same way, but doesn't think she ever will. Sad, is it not?”
“That's adorable,” Eola sighed. “Misplaced, but adorable. He's the former King in Rags, now King of Silver, and he's got his own army of fanatics who would die for him. He's personally killed an impressive number of people and he started before either of us were born. Come on, what woman wouldn't go for that?”
“I know!” Cicero giggled. “Were Cicero single, and were Madanach not dear Eola's father and also single and interested in men, Cicero would have thought about it! But Cicero's affections are engaged elsewhere and so are his, it would seem.”
“Yeah. Yeah they are,” Eola sighed, this time looking unaccountably sad for some reason. Surprising. Wouldn't Eola want her dear father to be happy with his wife-to-be? Shrugging, he kept on walking, keeping an eye out for potential assassins not working for Delphine. They had a job to do, after all.
The wedding went more or less without a hitch in the end. Of course, there was that incident when that Nord had raced in halfway through the ceremony waving a sword around and screaming that Elisif wasn't to worry, he'd save her from having to marry that monstrous witch-king.
The day had been saved by Argis stepping out from the crowd, grabbing the man in a headlock from behind and punching him in the face, knocking the interloper out before letting him drop to the floor and giving a respectful nod to Madanach, who gave a satisfied smile back. The guards had hauled the intruder off to the cells, and things had settled down after that.
Elisif had looked beautiful in a gorgeous golden dress and a matching set of gold and ruby earrings and necklace, walking down the aisle on Falk Firebeard's arm. To the surprise of many people, she was actually smiling and when Falk let her go to join Madanach, she looked quite pleased to see him.
“Not too late to back out, you know,” Madanach had said roughly. “I promise not to declare war on you if you do.”
Elisif had just laughed. “But who would I constantly pester for advice then? I'd miss your letters.”
Madanach hadn't even known how to react, so it was fortunate that the priest was calling them all to attention really. The ceremony had just got to the vows when the interruption had occurred. Elisif had cried out in horror, drawing instinctively closer to Madanach, who'd put an arm around her and flung the other one out, casting a ward. Mercifully, it hadn't been needed.
“Are you alright?” Elisif whispered, staring at him in shock as the guards hauled the intruder away.
“Shouldn't I be asking you that?” Madanach asked. She was trembling in his arms, eyes wide and looking very young, more so than usual. Madanach felt his heart go out to the poor girl.
“He was going to kill you!” she whispered, and Madanach began to wonder if she might actually have been worried for him.
“I don't think he'd have got as far as me,” Madanach reassured her. “After Argis, there are half a dozen Forsworn, Cicero and Borkul all sitting in the aisle seats and that's just on my side. Anyone who can get past that lot is welcome to have a go.”
Elisif had not looked convinced, in fact she was now scowling. “They most certainly are not! People are not allowed to go around waving weapons at my husband! I am Queen now and I forbid it.”
“I'm not your husband yet,” Madanach pointed out. Elisif was not one to let a little detail like that bother her.
“Well, we'd better get that seen to, hadn't we? Rorlund! Do please continue.”
“Y-yes, my lady,” said the Temple high priest, a little unsettled by the disturbance but a professional to the end. Half an hour later and the ceremony was over, the happy couple heading for their reception at the Blue Palace.
There was music. There was dancing. There was a full buffet rather than a sit-down banquet as this was well-known to be harder to poison. There were several Dark Brotherhood assassins wandering around keeping an eye on proceedings, including an Alik'r warrior and a Dunmer mage searching the guests as they came in, an innocuous and eminently forgettable Imperial man casually socialising and mingling with the guests, and a dark-haired Nord woman in a maid's outfit serving drinks and making sure guests kept their distance from the happy couple. Two blonde Nords were prowling the balcony, appearing to most as a pair of lovers seeking privacy, but in reality, both were observing everything going on down below.
Elisif watched from her throne, having had another installed next to it which Madanach was now sitting in. He was sipping a goblet of her best Firebrand wine – she'd sent him a case as his first courtship gift from her and he'd clearly acquired a taste for it, certainly if the way he was working through it tonight was any indication.
“Enjoying yourself?” she whispered, leaning in a little closer. He'd been quiet since the ceremony, toying with his new wedding ring, brooding on something. While Elisif had been buzzing with excitement over finally, finally not being a widow any more, he'd seemed withdrawn. Worried about something. Friendly enough to his own retinue but terse with everyone else. She'd not known him well enough to know if this was normal, but she did have all his letters still, and he was nothing like the man who'd written them. Everyone had said the Forsworn were semi-literate barbarians, but there was nothing semi-literate about those letters. He'd waxed lyrical about events in the Reach, answered her questions about the war, the Dragonborn, Forsworn customs, anything she'd wanted to know, he'd talked about. They were well-written too – this was a man who knew full well the power of words and how to use them. He'd complimented her, teased her, made her laugh, made her smile. It had been like having an uncle or older brother or even grandfather who'd been all over the place, lived a little – all right, lived a lot – and was now dispensing his wisdom to her, a favourite and cherished niece or sister. Even if most of that wisdom had essentially boiled down to 'just remember, you can in theory have them all killed if you want, although you may have to do a little work to actually justify it'. Not always the most immediately practical then, but he'd still charmed her.
Now here he was, and she wasn't sure what she'd been expecting but this wasn't it. Withdrawn, moody, hostile, something clearly bothering him although his people were downing her mead and having a great time, currently clapping along while the Dragonborn was doing some sort of acrobatic display.
“I've had worse nights,” Madanach murmured, slight smile on his lips as he watched Cicero walking on his hands along the balustrade. “What about you, are you having a good time? You seem happy enough.” He shifted in the throne, turning to face her, pale blue eyes losing none of their concern. An improvement, at least. Worried about her was an improvement over just worried.
“Why wouldn't I be?” Elisif whispered, turning to face him and shifting closer. “I just got married! To someone I like! I'm not a widow any more. I'm not – I'm not alone.”
“Hope to the old gods that wasn't the only reason you agreed to it,” Madanach growled, taking another sip of his wine. He glanced down at his wedding ring, toying with it again.
“You know, it's still not too late, Imperial marriage laws allow an annulment if you've not consummated it yet,” Madanach said suddenly. “You don't have to do this if you don't want to.”
Sick feeling of fear prickling down Elisif's back as she began to realise why he might be looking so concerned.
“Don't you want to? Be married to me?” she whispered. “But you wrote me that really sweet poem and sent this lovely jewellery, and told me all those stories about the Forsworn and the Dragonborn and...”
Madanach placed a finger to her lips, that faint smile flickering at his mouth again.
“Of course I do, you're beautiful. I just can't work out why you'd want me. Can't be the money or the power, you have those in your own right.”
Elisif laughed bitterly. All that work to become High Queen and it meant nothing. Just an empty title and a court that wasn't even her own.
“I've got no power whatsoever, Madanach. The army's not mine, the court's not mine, I could up and leave Solitude for months and everything would run just fine,” Elisif sighed, frustrated. “Every time I try to make a decision, Falk or Sybille or one of the Thanes overrules me. About the only thing of any importance I've ever got my way on was marrying you, and even then they were all begging me to reconsider.”
“Elisif, please don't tell me you said yes to me because your court all thought it was a terrible idea,” said Madanach wearily. “Even I'm not sure it was one of my best.”
“No!” Elisif snapped, beginning to lose patience with him. “I said yes because... because I wish I was more like you!” Madanach's eyebrows shot up at that, but he motioned for her to keep talking. Elisif felt the blood rush to her cheeks but continued. “Because you're fearless and powerful and everyone is scared of you and everyone takes you seriously.” She looked away, not wanting to see the confusion in those eyes, or worse, laughter. “No one's afraid of me and no one takes me seriously,” she whispered. “Except you.”
“I'm not afraid of you,” Madanach said, tone deliberately light and amused. Elisif rolled her eyes and without thinking shoved him in the arm like she'd done now and then with Torygg when he'd decided to tease her. Madanach laughed, caught her wrist and pulled her into his arms, trailing his fingers down her cheek and this was more like it, this was much more like it, he was pleased by something, pleased by her maybe? She hoped so, although the thought occurred to her that what pleased him might not be terribly good for her.
“Madanach?” she breathed, voice catching in her throat and coming out almost like a whimper.
“Elisif,” he murmured, low growl dragging out the syllables of her name and making her want to cling onto him. “Last chance to change your mind.”
“No,” she whispered. “Husband.” She shivered as she said it, jolts of pleasure or terror, she wasn't sure which, shooting to her loins as she quivered in his arms.
“Wife,” he growled and then he kissed her, and this was nothing like the one he'd given her during the ceremony, firm but gentle and all too fleeting, this was a rough claiming that promised so much more to come. Yes, yes, don't stop, please please take me to bed and use me hard...
“SING IT AGAIN!”
The Dragonborn, it could be no one else. Elisif couldn't stop the disappointed moan as Madanach broke off the kiss, muttering “oh for Sithis' sake...” and looked up wearily to see what Cicero was doing now. Pestering Lisette the bard from the look of it.
“Please,” Lisette gasped, backing away. “I already sung it three times tonight! Isn't that enough?”
“But Cicero likes that song!” Cicero whined, stomping his feet. “It has a nice tune and lovely words and it's about him! And sweet Lisette has a pretty voice! Pleeeeassse??”
No sign of Eola anywhere. Madanach growled to himself and got to his feet.
“I'm very sorry, Elisif, but in my daughter's absence, I think I'm the only one in the room who stands a hope of getting through to the little maniac.”
“That's quite all right,” Elisif whispered, wondering, not for the first time, how the poor man had got that way. “What does he want from her?”
“He wants her to sing 'The Dragonborn Comes' again,” said Madanach, in the voice of one who had to deal with this sort of thing on a regular basis. “He loves the song but sadly for the rest of us, he doesn't know when to stop. Option one is paralysing him and hauling him off to the cells for the night, which is my usual choice. Alas, not an option tonight. So we'll have to distract him. Elisif, did you want to dance?
“Well, yes but...” Elisif followed his gaze and realised he didn't mean with him. “Oh, you want me to dance with Cicero.”
“I'm told he's good at it?” Madanach offered by way of apology. Elisif nodded and followed him over to where Cicero was bouncing up and down in front of the terrified young bard. Well, if it was in the service of a good cause...
“Cicero ap Stelmaria, I hope you're not bothering this nice young lady,” Madanach purred, one hand clamping on Cicero's shoulder. Lisette's face went even paler as she realised the Reach-King himself had turned up, and she backed away, clearly petrified.
“Me? Humble Cicero wasn't bothering her! Humble Cicero never bothers anyone!” Cicero cried, all wounded innocence. “Poor Cicero just wanted to hear his favourite song. Hardly anyone ever sings it for him.”
“That does surprise me, because I distinctly recall hearing 'The Dragonborn Comes' three times already tonight,” Madanach said, turning Cicero around to face him. “Here, I need a favour.”
“A favour? But of course! What manner of favour?” Cicero tilted his head, crafty look appearing. “Cicero is happy to oblige you, dear Madanach, you need only ask.” A pause and then... “If Cicero does this favour, is he allowed back in the Hag's Rest again?”
Elisif was aware the Hag's Rest was the new name of Markarth's inn but what Cicero had done to get barred from it was something she really didn't want to think about.
Madanach sighed and gave in. “Fine. But you behave yourself and pay for your drinks and no fighting or harassing anyone or you're banned again. Now. I'm an old man and I'm tired, but my lovely young wife wanted to dance. They tell me you're good at it. Take her for a turn around the dance floor and I'll be much obliged.”
“Is that all, sweet Reach-King?” Cicero purred. “Say no more!” He turned his attention to Elisif, eyes wide and unblinking, grin showing far too many teeth as he offered his arm to her. “Elisif, sweet Elisif, pretty Elisif, lovely Queen of the Eight Holds, come with humble Cicero, we shall have dancing and music and gaiety and laughter!” Without further ado, he whisked Elisif off to the dance floor, and to give her her due, she only looked a little terrified as the Reach folk band Madanach had brought along started to play something lively.
Madanach breathed a sigh of relief. That could have turned nasty. After the infamous incident involving pestering Ogmund to sing the song twelve times in a row, which had involved the Markarth guards getting involved and Cicero having to be collected by Delphine from the cells the next day, Madanach was a little twitchy about any scenario involving Cicero and alcohol. At least he wasn't drinking a lot tonight. Now that the dancing was under way, Elisif didn't look worried either, just laughing and twirling on the dance floor, copying Cicero and picking the steps up well enough. She was having the time of her life. Good, she deserved to be happy after everything that had happened to her. Apparently she'd been there when Ulfric had killed Torygg. She'd had to be dragged away to stop her flinging herself at Ulfric, all the while apparently screaming like a madwoman that he was a murderer and a traitor and she hoped the Daedra took him. Poor girl.
But Ulfric was dead, Madanach had seen it happen personally, and Elisif was happy again at last. With him, apparently. He still had a little difficulty getting his head around the idea of Elisif actually being enthusiastic about this, but he'd explicitly said she didn't have to do it and she'd still been stubborn over it, so who was he to argue? He'd done nothing about the engagement after the Moot, even made sure it wasn't mentioned in any of the treaties so she wasn't bound, and she'd still written to him barely weeks after the smoke cleared over Lost Valley and demanded to know when her proposal was coming, and if it didn't arrive soon she was choosing one of her many other suitors and marrying them. He'd have laughed at her temerity, but he'd been too busy panicking and trying to avoid flying into a jealous rage to do anything other than swing into action and start sorting out an impressive courtship gift fit for a queen everyone adored. He still couldn't quite believe it had worked, but she'd said yes and then the letters had started coming, asking him questions and charming him with the details of court life in Solitude, and wanting advice and stories and looking up to him and honestly he'd been so flattered by the attention, he'd dropped his usual barriers and just told her whatever she wanted to know – the more bloody details omitted of course. It hadn't really sunk in that he'd have to actually marry this sweet young girl of twenty three and a far younger twenty three than either of his two had ever been, not until he'd actually got to Solitude and then it had all hit him, and a man not accustomed to either fear or guilt had suddenly found himself consumed by both. But it was done now, and there was no going back, especially not after hearing her whimper his name and then that kiss... He'd assumed it'd end up being a loveless marriage of convenience, but perhaps, just perhaps, this might work out after all.
Noise in a far corner and Madanach spun round, old instincts kicking in as Detect Life flared in his left hand, lightning bolt ready to go in his right... but it was just a couple in the shadows. Arguing from the sounds of it. A decent human being would have left them and given them some privacy, but this was Madanach listening in, so of course he cast a Muffle spell and swept closer, hiding around the corner.
“... don't care, Falk!” Now that was one of the Thanes – Bryling, was it? Arguing with Elisif's steward. Elisif had already told him in one of her letters they were having an affair. Apparently it wasn't going too well.
“Bryling, I'm sorry, I love you but I can't step down now! Elisif needs me! I can't leave her alone with that monster!”
“You're going to have to for the wedding night! Unless you plan to ask Madanach if you can watch?”
Under no circumstances whatsoever. But joking aside, Madanach made a mental note to keep an eye on these two. Falk's overprotectiveness and clear personal loathing of him, and Bryling's resentment – not a good combination.
“What – no! But at least if I'm around, I can look after her, give the orders she might not be able to bring herself to...”
Sharp intake of breath. “That's it, isn't it. You like having the power, you like being the one she leans on, you can't handle someone else being her shoulder to cry on, especially him, he's not someone you can just push around or manipulate, he's dangerous.”
“I know that! That's why Elisif needs me, she has no idea who she just married. Bryling, I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing it for her!”
A sob then a bitter laugh. “Of course you are. It's her, always her, isn't it? Always pretty young Elisif, isn't it? Never me. Well, you know what? She's all yours. I don't care any more, Falk, you and me are done. You're welcome to her. Oh, but she just got married, didn't she? To a jealous and possessive madman with a private army and the Dark Brotherhood at his back. Oh dear. Never mind. I'm sure you'll work something out. She needs you, after all.”
“Bryling, you can't – Bryling!” Too late. Bryling was clearly coming this way, and Madanach hastily darted back, sliding into one of the thrones, reaching for his wine before anyone suspected anything was amiss. Bryling strode out furiously, barely sparing Madanach a second glance as she swept down the stairs to where the band had set themselves up, clearly intending to find a dance partner and get straight back on the horse.
Falk staggered out after her, dishevelled and panicked and running hands through his hair. He looked about him to see if anyone had heard that – and his eyes fell straight on Madanach. Madanach sat up, watching Falk with interest. The man clearly hated him and was afraid he was going to start hurting and abusing the High Queen and while Madanach could quite see why he might be afraid that might happen, Falk really had very little to worry about. Elisif would never come to any harm from him. Of course, if Falk's real fear was that Madanach was going to completely overturn the power balance in this court... well yes, of course he was, that was the whole point of suggesting the marriage in the first place. Elisif knew it too, which appeared to be exactly the reason she'd said yes. Time for a change in the Blue Palace, and wasn't Madanach's patron deity the god of taking what was there and making it not be?
“Firebeard,” Madanach nodded, raising his glass. “Something I can help you with?”
“No,” Falk said, pulling himself together and glaring at him. “The Queen. Where is she?” Honestly, it was almost as if Falk suspected Madanach of having murdered her already. As if Madanach would marry a beautiful young woman and murder her before the wedding night, really.
“She's on the dance floor,” Madanach said, trying not to smirk. “I'm too old to go cavorting around the place, but there's no reason she shouldn't have fun. The Dragonborn's looking after her.”
Falk went even paler, but given the Dragonborn was a national hero who'd slain Alduin and returned to save Skyrim from the Stormcloaks, he couldn't really argue. Even if said Dragonborn was a stab-happy little lunatic.
“I need to find her,” Falk breathed, turning and walking briskly away. Madanach shook his head and returned to his drink. Elisif had been right, this court was all wrong – for her, for anyone. Definitely time for a change. He was the official consort now, after all, and after achieving his lifetime's ambition, he was secretly hankering for a new challenge, something to occupy his mind. Dealing with Solitude's dysfunctional court might be just the thing.
Getting up, he went in search of Lisette, who was downstairs striking up conversation with the lead fiddle player of that folk band Nepos had found for him called The Briar-Hearted – all ex-Forsworn turned musicians and surprisingly talented. Time to send a message to the Nords.
“Hello there, are you still taking requests?” he asked the young bard. On seeing her start at his voice and back off nervously, he hastily put on his most reassuring smile. “Don't worry, you don't have to sing The Dragonborn Comes again. I was just wondering if you knew Rains of Lost Valley. They all do, don't you worry.” He nodded at the band, who all grinned and raised their instruments, ready to go when Lisette was.
Lisette blushed a little but did smile. “Oh yes, of course! I've been rehearsing it especially, I just didn't know if you'd want to hear it at your wedding, but if you want to...”
Madanach wasn't completely at ease with being reminded of Lost Valley, if he was honest – fighting his own people wasn't something he'd taken any great pleasure in, but the Hags had left him no choice. At least all the parents in the camp had had the sense to heed his call for them to surrender before he came in force, and fled with their belongings and their children before the slaughter had started. However, it had boosted his reputation no end in both the rest of the Reach and Skyrim, and then someone had written that Rains of Lost Valley song all about the perils of screwing over the House of Madanach, Red Eagle's Heirs. It would do perfectly.
“I do,” said Madanach, glancing over at Falk Firebeard who was watching from the sidelines, taking in Elisif taking her leave of Cicero, laughing as he kissed her hand and bowed to her, then Bryling already getting quite friendly with a Nord who'd been with the Jarl of Whiterun's party, and finally glaring at Madanach himself. “All I ask is follow it up with Age of Aggression, cheer everyone up afterwards.”
A song about the death of Ulfric Stormcloak would get everyone in the room going, his lovely wife included. As she saw him standing there and made her way over, Madanach held out a hand to her and pulled her into his arms. First move made in this chess game. Let Solitude respond to that how it would.
Eola had retreated to the shadows, the party taking its toll on her. No proper food, far too civilised by Forsworn standards, full of people who bored her silly, oh and not only did she miss Delphine, Cicero was being the life and soul of the party, enthusiastically talking away to anyone and everyone, telling stories of dragon-hunting and bravery, dancing with anyone who offered and yet somehow contriving to be rarely far from Madanach and Elisif – in fact, right now he was taking the young queen for a turn around the dance floor. He was good too – apparently his mother had sent him for lessons as a boy, and he'd been to a fair few dances in Cyrodiil in his youth as well. Whereas Eola couldn't get the hang of these formal dances at all, and had left him to it. It was one thing to dance with Cicero or her father, both of whom were fairly forgiving of the fact she had no sense of rhythm whatsoever. It was quite another to be whirled around the dancefloor by some stranger who would then most likely start reporting to everyone that the younger Princess of the Reach couldn't dance at all. Not that Eola greatly cared, princessing wasn't her day job after all, but it was annoying to think about total strangers laughing at her. At least if she heard anyone badmouthing her, she could send Cicero after them. Or maybe take care of them herself. Now that was a cheering thought.
A flash of black out of the corner of her eye and the sensation of someone suddenly there without a sound.
“Who are you?” Eola snapped, spinning around to challenge whoever was fool enough to sneak up on her.
“I'm sorry! I didn't mean to, er, startle you.” It was a young woman with black hair and dark eyes, Nord, probably about twenty, dressed in typical Nord fine clothing. And from the look of her, she was clearly a Black-Briar. Eola had already seen Maven and a younger man who was presumably her son wandering around. This must be Maven's daughter.
“Word of advice,” said Eola tersely. “Don't sneak up on a Forsworn. What is it?” It was nice being a king's daughter. It meant not having to suck up to the likes of the Black-Briar clan. Not that this one seemed to be too stuck-up, in fact she looked a little starstruck.
“I'm sorry, I just wanted to get to actually talk to you. Are you really Madanach's daughter?”
“Yes,” said Eola, torn between boredom and a prickling feeling of uneasiness. “That's why I'm here, at his wedding, in uncomfortable clothes and bored out of my skull when there's a million other things I'd rather be doing.”
The girl giggled a little. “I understand,” she said sympathetically. “I'd much rather be back in Riften with my alchemy experiments or out gathering ingredients. But Mother says this is where all the movers and shakers of Skyrim are, so here we have to be. Oh, I haven't introduced myself, have I? Ingun Black-Briar of Riften. My mother's Maven Black-Briar, the meadery owner. And she's been Jarl since the peace summit at High Hrothgar.”
“I know,” said Eola, wondering what on earth the girl wanted. “I was there. Helped negotiate it.”
“Yes!” Ingun breathed. “I mean, yes, you did, you're friends with the Dragonborn, aren't you? I bet you and he have had tons of adventures!”
“We've had a few,” Eola admitted. “I hope you're not eyeing him up. He's not available, and you're a bit young for him.”
Ingun shook her head. “Oh no. I'm not after the Dragonborn. Mother doesn't seem to like him for some reason. I don't know why.”
Probably something to do with getting on her nerves at a certain Thalmor party last autumn, but Eola decided not to tell Ingun that.
“So if you're not after the Dragonborn, what do you want?” Eola asked, now beginning to wonder what Ingun was after. She really didn't want some chit of a girl hanging on her arm who just wanted to gossip and giggle about boys all the time. She already had Aranea and Sapphire and Delphine, who between them had enough dirty jokes and lewd stories to keep the entire Imperial Legion entertained. Eola didn't think Ingun would exactly fit in.
Ingun lowered her voice, edging nearer. “Is it true what they say? About, you know, your father? That he's got the Dark Brotherhood in his pocket?”
Eola froze. She knew people were talking, but she didn't think anyone would be quite so brazen as to actually ask.
She laughed, acutely aware of how fake it sounded but not caring. “Oh, don't be so ridiculous! Of course my father's not in charge of the Dark Brotherhood! What a funny thing to say!”
“No?” Ingun asked, raising an eyebrow. “Mother seems to think it wasn't a coincidence that the Dark Brotherhood killed the old Emperor, then Madanach took over the Reach barely weeks after the High Hrothgar Accord was signed. Now everyone says that the Dark Brotherhood freely walk the streets of Markarth, and they've got a temple in the city where anyone can perform the Black Sacrament. Is that true?”
Eola dropped the innocent act. “Keep your voice down,” she hissed. “No one with any sense talks openly about the Brotherhood. Listen, I don't get involved in politics unless I have to. And if Da's had dealings with the Black Hand in the past, that's between him and them. Same way people don't walk up to your Ma and ask her how the Thieves Guild are doing these days, do they?”
That struck a nerve. Ingun's eyes widened and she glared at Eola.
“My mother is a perfectly respectable citizen!” Ingun snapped. “She would never associate with the likes of them!”
“Of course not,” said Eola. “Same way my da's a perfectly respectable ruler who would never hire the Brotherhood to get his enemies removed for him. Do we understand each other?”
Ingun's shoulders sagged and Eola could swear she looked disappointed. “Yes, we do,” she sighed. “So I suppose there's no point asking you how I'd go about joining up then.”
Eola spluttered, mead going everywhere. “I'm sorry, what?” she managed to gasp. “You. Want to join...?”
“The Dark Brotherhood, yes,” Ingun whispered, eyes alive with delight. “It must be such an exciting life! Imagine, to have such power! To be able to stalk the streets, knowing that you could end the life of any one you see before they even knew they were dead! It's... intoxicating.”
Namira help her. The Dark Brotherhood had acquired adoring fans. Eola hated to have to break it to her that while there'd been a fair number of contracts since the Battle of Markarth, most of the time was spent training, doing chores, spending her rota days at the Temple and chilling out back at Karthspire. It wasn't a bad life, all told, but the glamorous bits weren't as frequent as she'd hoped. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. She certainly hoped Ingun wasn't expecting it to be all killing Emperors and dropping dragons on rebel Jarls.
“Have you ever actually killed anyone?” Eola asked. “The Dark Brotherhood don't take sweet little innocents, you know. You've got to already be a murderer before they'll look twice.”
“So if I killed someone, they'd take me?” Ingun asked thoughtfully. Eola covered her eyes, giving up on talking any sort of sense into the girl.
“I wouldn't know,” said Eola wearily. “I'm just an innocent young girl who tries to stay out of that sort of thing. I'm just saying what I've heard. If you kill someone and get away with it, maybe they'll send someone to recruit you. If you get caught... well, you're on your own.”
Ingun just smiled, an evil little smile that made her look a lot like Maven... if Maven ever smiled, that was.
“Oh, I won't. Get caught, that is. Thank you, Eola. You've been very helpful.”
“Helpful? Who has been helpful?” Oh good. The music had finished, the opening strains of Rains of Lost Valley had started up (of course they had, it was probably asking for too much to get through the evening without it) and Cicero had taken his leave of Elisif and come to see what Eola was up to. There went any chance of extricating herself painlessly out of this one.
Cicero skipped over to them, tilting his head as he examined Ingun, all curiosity. “I know you!” he squealed. “Or... no. But you look familiar. Wait! You are Jarl Maven's daughter, yes? Cicero Di Rosso Dragonborn, at your service, my good lady.” He swept her a low bow, but thankfully did not kiss Ingun's hand.
“At yours and your family's,” said Ingun, blushing. “Are you really the Dragonborn?”
“Why yes!” Cicero giggled. “Did you want Cicero to demonstrate?”
“No!” Eola cried. “You know what Delphine's opinions are on Shouting indoors.”
Cicero pouted but did not argue. He turned his attention back to Ingun, seemingly intrigued. It couldn't be sexual attraction, Ingun didn't seem like Cicero's type and he always made such a big deal of being the Listener's anyway.
“Is the sweet Miss Black-Briar an alchemist, by any chance? Cicero sees what looks like Nirnroot stains on your fingernails.”
“That's amazing!” Ingun laughed. “You must be so observant to have worked that out. And please, call me Ingun. Unlike my mother, I can see the value of having the Dragonborn for a friend.”
“Gods help us,” Eola muttered. Being technically on duty, she wasn't really drinking much, but right now she felt the urge to get some more mead in.
“Indeed,” said Cicero thoughtfully. “But what are the Black-Briars offering the Dragonborn? Cicero already has money, he prefers wine to mead, and he is already counted a friend by both Queen Elisif and Madanach the Reach-King. What else does Jarl Maven have to offer?” He was smiling politely, but there was an edge of steel to his words. Far more than the simple fool he pretended to be, and Eola couldn't resist grinning. It was said there were five staples of the Cyrodiilic diet – bread, meat, fish, wine and politics. If Ingun was trying her hand at intrigue, she'd picked the wrong person to do it with.
“Oh, I'm not here on my mother's behalf,” said Ingun, frowning. “Honestly, Mother's very good at what she does, but she's content being the big fish in a not terribly big pond. I've got my sights on bigger and better things.”
“Such as?” Cicero inquired.
“She wants to join the Dark Brotherhood,” said Eola. She'd not been lying when she said she didn't care for politics. Waste of time in her opinion when there were people to kill.
Cicero's eyes widened and he turned back to Ingun, appraising her with fresh eyes.
“Yes, yes, perhaps,” he murmured. “You're young, a bit sheltered but there is something about you. You have had poison on your hands... but have they ever felt the blood of another?”
“No,” Ingun admitted. “But... I could do it if I had to?”
“If you had to,” Cicero repeated, smiling. “If Ingun would be a Dark Sister, she would be better off doing it because she wanted to. Because she loved the way the blood pooled on the floor and the way the life went out of their eyes as she stabbed them...”
Ingun bit back a little whimper, and Cicero grinned at Eola, triumphantly.
“Cicero is good at this, yes?”
“Sweet Sithis,” Eola muttered. “Listen, champ, I'm going to get a refill on the mead, want anything?”
“No, no,” said Cicero, offering an arm to Ingun. “Cicero is fine as he is. Come, come, walk with Cicero a while, dear Ingun. It seems we have things to discuss.”
Eola left them to it and went to see what else was happening. Not a lot from the look of it. Rains of Lost Valley had thankfully finished and Elisif was back in Madanach's arms, clearly flushed from the dancing and all the mead used in the toasts earlier and laughing in delight at something Madanach had said. From the flirty way she was smiling at him and angling her body at him, Eola had a feeling the wedding night would go just fine. Kaie was sat off to one side, clearly flirting with Borkul, and the big Orc was quite clearly flirting back. Took all sorts, Eola supposed.
The party was beginning to die down a little as various couples paired off – no real noteworthy gossip there, although she did notice one of Elisif's thanes cozying up to Jarl Balgruuf's brother. Now if that was Bryling, very interesting – Madanach had told her Bryling was having a secret affair with Falk Firebeard according to Elisif, but apparently not any more if the way she was flirting with the Jarl's brother was any indication. Falk himself was off in one corner, looking worried about something, eyes not leaving the young queen as she cajoled and begged and finally convinced her husband to slow dance with her. Madanach had rolled his eyes, laughed and let her pull him to the dance floor. Very good to see – Madanach hadn't really talked about it much, but he'd clearly been lonely for a long time. It was nice to see her father happy again – despite his ruthless reputation (entirely deserved), he had a very well hidden caring and protective side and Elisif was clearly bringing it out. They'd make a great couple, Eola just knew.
Eola wondered where Delphine was. Times like this she missed having someone of her own. With Cicero off talking murder with Ingun Black-Briar, Eola began to realise just how uninteresting everything else seemed by comparison. Not to mention how stressful keeping up this façade of elegance was. Gods, she missed her coven. When all this was over, she was so going hunting again. She was running out of decent food and it had been so long since she'd tracked prey and brought it down. So long since she'd seen blood spilled...
Blood. The scent of just that very thing drifted across to her, and next thing she knew, she was staring at a worn jade amulet just visible below a fine silk shirt. She looked up and smiled with relief to see a fellow hunter.
“Cal baby, you're still here,” Eola laughed. Calixto Corrium, ex-serial killer, part-time necromancer and fellow Dark Brotherhood member, bowed and kissed her hand.
“I'm still here, yes. May I have the honour of this dance, milady princess?”
“Please never call me that again,” said Eola vehemently. “I'm so sick of having to pretend to be sophisticated. Can I go to bed yet?”
“When your father does,” said Calixto, leading her to the dance floor. “Until then, we are working security providers.”
“My feet hurt,” Eola whined. “I've been standing nearly all day! My eyepatch itches, I can't move properly in this dress and these hair extensions weigh a ton. I don't wanna be a princess any more!”
“Poor darling, are your diamond shoes too tight?” Calixto muttered, wincing as Eola trod on his foot.
“Yeah,” Eola said, pouting. “Look, is anyone actually going to be stupid enough to try and assassinate either the High Queen or her consort in the Blue Palace itself, in front of everyone? Apart from us, but we're professionals and we've all been paid not to.”
“Someone tried at the Temple,” said Calixto, eyes scanning the room. “Delphine thinks that might have been a one-off but could have been a distraction, trying to lure us into a false sense of security so we'd let our guard down.”
“Think she's right?” Eola asked, knowing what the answer would be.
“She might be,” said Calixto, spinning her round so she could take in the rest of the room. “Do you want to gamble your father's life on it?”
Of course not.
“So what are we looking for?” she asked. If he'd spoken to Delphine, that meant she'd have given him some pointers.
“Well, we're all accounted for, and there's no other professional assassins who'd take this on,” said Calixto. “So we're looking for an idealistic amateur.”
“An amateur,” Eola mused. “Someone who wants a nine-hold Skyrim again and who probably wanted Ulfric as High King. Quite probably knowing this is a suicide mission but not caring because Sovngarde awaits, right?”
“Right,” Calixto confirmed. “Probably looking a little nervous, because they've never done this before, time is running out and if they're going to strike, it'll have to be soon.”
“So someone nervous and probably young, because older people tend to be a bit more mellow and less willing to throw their lives away without a good reason. See anyone like that?”
Calixto didn't answer, surveying the room with his eyes narrowed. Then they flicked wide.
“There!” he gasped, letting go her hand so she could spin round to see. One of the young women serving drinks was moving ever closer to Madanach, licking her lips nervously. A Nord, dark hair, in her twenties, steely determination in her eyes and she moved more like a warrior than a servant. Madanach, whispering something in Elisif's ear, was oblivious to her approach. Or at least he was until the drinks tray the waitress was carrying went flying to the floor and she produced a very sharp kitchen knife, ready to strike.
Elisif looked up and screamed, pushing her husband to one side and positioning herself in front of him, bravely facing the woman down despite having nothing in the way of weapons, armour or magic at her disposal. Eola, forewarned, was there, a lightning bolt staggering her father's attacker but not stopping her. Nor did the ice spike from Kaie a split second later. It was only Elisif's reaction and it being her, not Madanach, in the woman's line of attack that gave her pause.
“WULD!” A flash of blue and red and the attacker went flying, blood spraying everywhere as an ebony dagger neatly sliced her throat open. Screams broke out around the room as guests panicked and guards tried vainly to restore order. Sitting on top of the would-be assassin's body was one actual assassin, giggling to himself as he wiped the blood spatter from his face and cleaned his dagger. Eola bit back a whimper as she stared at the sight. Brutal, violent and oh gods she could kiss him right there. But no. He wasn't interested, and this really wasn't the time or the place anyway.
“Eola, are you alright? You have blood on your cheek. Eola?” That was Calixto, sounding a little concerned, as if she'd never seen a violent death before.
“Oh I'm fine,” said Eola, shaking her head and coming back to herself. “It's just a little blood, it won't hurt me. Da, where are you? Da?”
“Right here,” said Madanach roughly, Elisif still clinging on to him in terror. “I'm fine. Are you?”
Eola nodded, still staring at the dead Nord. She had no idea who she was or how she'd even got in here. But she was sure Delphine would find out and then... then there would be trouble.