It was almost twilight when they finally arrived at the Imperial City. Riding ahead of the carriage that held the Count and Countess Umbranox, Hieronymus Lex scrutinized his surroundings for any sign of trouble. The streets were rife with merriment, and while not surprising considering recent events, he still watched suspicious-looking citizens until they were no longer in their vicinity.
As they reached the Imperial Palace, they were greeted by an entourage of guards, and they escorted the Count and Countess into the ballroom where the event would be held. He trailed after them, relaxing minutely knowing how secure the White-Gold Tower was. When his charges were approached by members of the Elder Council, Hieronymus made himself scarce and positioned himself strategically in one of the corners of the room, with a glass of wine in his hand.
He sipped at it slowly as his eyes followed the Count and Countess in the room.
He'd been away from the Imperial City for seven years, and so much had changed since then. It was quite strange being back, like greeting an old friend, but finding out the two of you had little to nothing in common anymore. Anvil had done wonders to his young, naive self. While he would still uphold the law, no question about that, he'd allowed himself to loosen up, especially under the guidance of Count Umbranox. The Count had insisted it was him who'd petitioned his transfer to Anvil, and at first, Hieronymus had resented him for it, but after a year, he'd realized it helped him in the long run. His search for the Grey Fox had been a lost cause from the start, and while it would still please him to see that criminal in chains, it was no longer his priority.
He wished he could have done more for Cyrodiil during the Oblivion Crisis, but the Count had explicitly forbidden him from entering the Oblivion Gate that opened near Anvil. Instead, they'd sent one woman in, and Hieronymus was certain she'd perish in the attempt, but after a few hours, a guard arrived, out of breath, and delivered a letter from this Hero, as well as the best news they'd heard in a long time: the Gate was closed. Hieronymus should have been there to personally thank the woman for what she'd done, but when he got there, she had already left to go back to Bruma—to their Emperor. It was only then that they'd learned that she was the fabled Hero of Kvatch, who'd braved Oblivion to allow the citizens of Kvatch to escape. Hieronymus admired such bravery and selflessness, and when he'd heard she would be present in today's celebration, he felt awed and honored to be meeting her.
Not much was known about the mysterious woman, which was strange, considering she was now the most well-known figure in all of Cyrodiil. Rumor has it that she was a dunmer who'd lived in the Imperial City for some time. That narrowed the possible candidates, but random citizens also said she could shoot fire out of her eyes and had the strength of a thousand men, so Hieronymus learned not to take stock to rumors that much.
A group of heavily armed men entered the ballroom, and they stared at the crowd impassively as the herald announced their names and titles.
“Commander Jauffre and Captain Baurus of the Imperial Guard...”
Hieronymus eyed them as they descended the stairs and into the crowd of noblemen. It was clear that none of them wanted to be there, if the stoic faces and annoyed expressions were any indication. When they'd weaved through the crowd, they settled at one of the tables near him, and the other guards had formed a wall around the Commander and the Captain.
“...ridiculous...His Highness...the Champion...”
“...gone...she shouldn't be…mourning...”
Hieronymus' ears pricked as he heard snippets of their conversation. He had an internal debate about the morality of eavesdropping and guilt eventually won out. When he'd decided to move away, he turned to see that they had stopped their conversation and were looking at him.
He tried not to look too guilty as the Commander frowned at him and started walking towards him.
“Sir!” he saluted when he approached.
The Commander scrutinized him for a moment before nodding. “At ease, soldier.”
When he didn't speak any further, Hieronymus spoke hesitantly. “Was there...something you needed, sir?”
“You're not very good at subtlety, are you, Captain?” The Captain, Baurus, had come closer and spoke from behind Jauffre, giving him an inscrutable look.
“I,” Hieronymus licked his lips in nervousness. Here he was, in front of actual heroes, and he couldn't say a damn thing. “So I've been told, sir.”
Baurus let out a bark of laughter at his response. Even Jauffre had a look of faint amusement on his face now. Hieronymus tried not to act like a freshly-minted soldier, but in front of these seasoned veterans, he felt much like a babe in his crib.
“What's your name Captain?”
He cleared his throat to make sure his voice didn't catch, because he did not need to be any more embarrassed than he already was. “Hieronymus Lex of Anvil, sir.”
“Hieronymus...your name sounds familiar,” Baurus said.
“I used to be the Captain of the Guard in the Imperial City before I was transferred to Anvil,” he offered. How could these people have heard of him before? He certainly hadn't done anything remotely noticeable.
“Ah,” Baurus had a sudden look of realization. “I remember now. She's mentioned you before.”
“She? Who she?” Hieronymus asked them in confusion as he took a sip of his wine.
Jauffre raised an eyebrow at him. “The 'Champion of Cyrodiil' of course.”
“Ha-what?” he choked on his wine. “The Champion of Cyrodiil! But I've never met her!”
Both Jauffre and Baurus, blinked at him.
“I don't even know her name!” he added when they looked at him suspiciously.
“Ah,” Another look of understanding. “Perhaps it's best if she tells you, that is if she shows herself.”
“She might not come then, sir?” Hieronymus tried not to let his disappointment show, but Baurus had caught it anyway, and for the first time that night, his gaze turned steely. After a few moments, he walked away, leaving Hieronymus in shock.
Jauffre turned to him. “It was an honor to have served Martin Septim, but these wounds are still raw. And it will be many years before we can forgive ourselves for this failure.” He nodded at the still-gaping Hieronymus, and he too, stalked away.
Failure? Hieronymus asked himself as he gulped down his wine. How could they think of what they've accomplished as a failure? They saved the world from being swallowed by Oblivion! Such a feat...Hieronymus couldn't think of a greater achievement.
Unless they weren't talking about saving Nirn. Hieronymus' eyes strayed to the painting of Martin Septim somebody had commissioned for the event. The man was depicted wearing the Old armor of Talos, and even he could see the man looked regal. That was the man who'd given his life to save the world, and now, the horrors of Oblivion could no longer touch Nirn.
Baurus and Jauffre, and this Champion of Cyrodiil, they were with Martin Septim every step of the way. Perhaps they'd been friends? What would he have done if something similar had happened to him? Hieronymus couldn't begin to imagine the strength needed to rise up from something like that.
He caught movement at the corner of his eye, but when he turned towards it, he couldn't see anything out of place. Hieronymus narrowed his eyes. He thought he saw—yes! There was a figure obviously cloaked in a chameleon spell, edging away from the party and making its way onto the balcony. Not wanting to alert anybody, Hieronymus casually walked in the direction of the balcony. He sipped at his wine, trying not to show how his heart pounded in excitement. Maybe fate had brought him and the Gray Fox together! Perhaps today would be the day his old dream would be realized.
The balcony was otherwise empty apart from him and the figure, and he approached slowly, not letting his steps make much sound—
“You're not that quiet, Hieronymus.”
Well, that wasn't the voice he expected. It sounded familiar but he couldn't quite place it. He deflated when he realized there was no way it was the Grey Fox. Still, he had a job to do. “Citizen, I will have to ask you to lower your chameleon spell,” he said in his most authoritative voice.
“You haven't changed much,” Hieronymus could hear the smile in her tone, and when the spell was lifted, his jaw dropped.
She was still as beautiful as the day they'd met. He hadn't seen her in seven years since he moved to Anvil and agreed to end their relationship. Her hair was longer, but he would recognize her anywhere.
“Talia?” he asked in disbelief.
A small, tired smile made its way to her face. “The one and only.”
“I—what are you doing out here?” he tried not to sound as flustered as he felt, but judging from her amused expression, he'd failed miserably.
“Evading the nobles. You?” she said.
He scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. Well, it was Talia, he supposed he could trust her. “I saw your chameleon spell; I thought you were the Gray Fox.”
The bitter laugh that welled from Talia surprised him. He was certain he'd never heard that kind of sound escape her lips before. She murmured something he didn't catch and shook her head.
Hieronymus scrutinized the dunmer in front of him. Time hadn't really changed her looks; elves aged much more slowly than humans, and he realized how older he must have looked now, and how unchanged she was.
Talia was looking at him expectantly. He gave her a sheepish grin, and resisted the urge to brush his hand across her cheek like he used to.
“I apologize, my mind went elsewhere. It's truly wonderful to see you again.”
“It's been an incredibly long time, Hieronymus,” she gave him a warm smile, and he cursed his traitorous heart for leaping at it.
“So,” he leaned on the balcony. “I—ah—What brings you here? I suppose you were in the final siege on the city?” he guessed, and he was once again surprised when Talia's expression shuttered.
“Yes,” she said in an unreadable tone. “I was there.”
Hieronymus frowned when she didn't say anything else, so he probed her. “Well, you must have done something to gain an invitation to this gathering?”
Talia heaved a great sigh. “Leave it be, Hieronymus.”
His suspicion heightened. “What—?”
“I said leave it,” her tone brooked no argument, and Hieronymus was left speechless at how dangerous she sounded. His eyes narrowed. Maybe she was in a chameleon spell because she had snuck into the gathering?
Before he could voice his concern, Talia stiffened, and someone from behind them spoke.
“Captain, I was wondering where you'd—Ah, Talia.”
Hieronymus spun and saluted, recognizing the Count Anvil's voice anywhere. He shot Talia a confused look when he heard the Count address her by name.
There was no trace of the harshness of the past few minutes in her face, but there was a strange tension between the two when Talia spoke.
“Corvus, a pleasure to see you again,” she said politely, but the Count had a strange expression on his face.
“And you as well, my friend. Congratulations on your new appointment, I had heard Captain Mattius refused to have anyone else take the position.”
Friend? New appointment? Talia tensed and Hieronymus looked back at her curiously. “What position?”
“It's nothing—,” she started, but the Count spoke at the same time.
“Why, Countess of Kvatch—,”
Hieronymus froze, and he turned to Talia disbelievingly. Her face was still neutral, but there was a hint of annoyance in her expression.
“Ah,” Understanding crossed the Count's face and he suddenly looked repentant. “I believe I shall get back to my wife, she must be missing me terribly.” And he practically swooped out of there. The two stood in awkward silence; Talia looked like she didn't want to expound on the situation, but Hieronymus wanted an explanation.
“How do you know the Count?” he said tentatively, and Talia gave a heavy sigh.
“I met him when I was in Skyrim, I had to help him out of a very...difficult situation. If you want more details on it, I'm afraid, you'd have to ask the Count. I've been sworn to secrecy.”
“I see,” he scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “And being Countess?”
“I was given the position, but I only agreed to do it until the Elder Council finds a more suitable candidate. As well as just to humor Matius. Most likely they'll find someone new in a few months.”
“Yes but why? Why would the guard captain insist that you take the position?” After all, wasn't she just an alchemist who lived in the Waterfront district? What would compel them to push her into that role?
She was silent for a moment, before a look of resignation crossed her face. “Because I closed the gate at Kvatch.”
Hieronymus' brain halted as he processed what she said. He blinked once, twice, before the realization smacked him in the head.
“You're the Hero of Kvatch?” his voice had risen a few notches, and it was an effort not to squeak in surprise.
Talia threw him a wry look. “Don't sound too surprised, Hieronymus. You're hurting my feelings.”
“You don't have feelings,” he shot back, and immediately was horrified at his response. This was what he got from spending the majority of his time with the Count.
Talia gave him a surprised laugh. “I'm shocked. Those seven years in Anvil have taught you how to sass people, my dear Captain.”
“No b-but! When? How? Why didn't you tell me?”
He probably looked half-crazed. Talia had no idea how much this information affected him. Why did she never write to him and tell him? Had they really been so disconnected that she didn't deem him worthy of this information?
Talia looked away. “What would I say, Hieronymus? 'Hello, how are you? By the way, I just jumped into the gates of Oblivion and saved Kvatch. What's new with you?'”
He didn't even get a 'Hello, how are you' letter, he almost grunted. “I thought we were closer than that.”
“We were, Hieronymus,” there was a hard look in her eyes now. “But things change. I've changed.”
The guard captain didn't miss her usage of the past tense, and it hurt more than he thought it would. He bit his lip; he couldn't believe that after all these years he still felt something for her. She had been the first woman he ever loved, and he was also her first, but he didn't think he'd be this distraught. But then again…
He looked at the dunmer in front of him, and Jauffre's words came back to him: “It will be many years before we can forgive ourselves for this failure.” She was mourning, hurting in ways he couldn't even imagine, and she was hiding it spectacularly. His eyes softened, and he brushed a hand across her cheek, like he did once, and Talia was so surprised that she jerked away from his touch.
There was a stricken look on her face, and Hieronymus didn't know how to interpret it.
“We may not be,” he gesticulated wildly. “But you've always been a dear friend to me. Let me—”
“I—I can't,” she looked on the verge of panic, and Hieronymus tried to hide how alarmed he was. Talia had always been the kind of person to be in control of herself and her emotions. She had been the more level-headed between the two of them, and the more rational one.
Slowly, so as not to startle her again, he placed his hand back on her cheek, and this time, Talia closed her eyes and leaned in.
He couldn't even imagine the kind of pain she was in. He drew her closer and enveloped her in his arms. With her head tucked under his chin, it was easy to pretend that they hadn't been apart for seven years. That they still had wild dreams of traveling across Tamriel and setting an outpost in Elsweyr. That she still loved him.
The dam burst.
Tears streamed down Talia's face, but she cried so silently that Hieronymus had to constantly reassure himself that she was still breathing. They stayed like that for a few minutes, him just providing silent support and her soaking up his warmth and sympathy.
“I can't stand it,” Talia said quietly.
“Can't stand what?”
“Everywhere I go, people come up to me, sing my praises and laud my 'achievements'. They give me their false sympathies for Martin's death and it makes me what to rip their throats out.”
Hieronymus stayed quiet, but he stroked her hair encouragingly.
“Martin...Martin should be here. He should be the Emperor. We should all be singing his praises and pledging our swords to defend him. We've been through so much together it seems unfair that I get to live, and he passes on. What is the point of being in the Order of the Dragon if there is no Dragonborn to serve?”
She lifted her head and Hieronymus brushed away the tears that kept on falling.
“Why am I here? And why isn't he here with me?”
Hieronymus stilled. Did she...she couldn't possibly mean?
Talia didn't seem to notice. “People all knew how kind he was, how noble, but they never really knew him. They don't know that he scrapes off the icing from the sweet roll because he likes to eat it last. And that he gets this crease in his forehead when he's trying to figure something. Or that he personally blames himself for every death that Mehrunes Dagon has caused.”
Hieronymus licked his lips nervously. This sounded… “The two of you were...close?”
“Close?” she echoed hollowly. “He was there when the onslaught of Oblivion was too much for my mind. He personally heals me after every quest, every excursion. We would spend hours of our free time talking about everything and anything. He confided much in me, and I him.” her smile grew nostalgic. “They told me after the Siege of Bruma that Martin carried me himself after I passed out from exhaustion. He never left my side until I regained consciousness. So...close? Yes, I suppose we were.”
By the Nine. She loved him. And if he was reading what she was saying correctly, he loved her as well.
“I'm sorry,” Hieronymus offered, and Talia huffed. She buried his head in the crook of his neck before sighing.
When she pulled back, Hieronymus couldn't even tell that she'd been so distraught. The change threw him from a moment, and all he could to was try not to gape as she brushed herself off and fixed her hair. A wall was thrown up, and he knew it was a momentary weakness on her part. She'd changed much, but if had gone through what she did, he would too.
“Hieronymus,” she interrupted, and he shut his mouth. Talia was looking at him with a strange expression, but maybe he was just really bad at interpreting people's faces.
“Yes?” he prompted.
She hesitated before ploughing on. “About the Gray Fox...”
As usual, his heart leapt at news of his former nemesis. “What about him?”
“You'll never catch him.”
“It's impossible to know his true identity. His mask, it's enchanted to protect his identity. You can never associate whoever is under the mask with the Gray Fox. And even if he tells you, your mind won't be able to process it.”
Hieronymus frowned at her. “How do you know all this?”
She gave him a melancholy smile. “Because...”
Talia was saying something, but he zoned out, thinking of what he would say to the Gray Fox if he ever met him. When he snapped out of it, she looked sad, but not surprised.
“Forgive me, my mind was in the clouds. What was it you were saying?”
Talia shook her head. “Nothing important, Hieronymus.” Thunderous applause erupted from the ball, and he was startled to note that Chancellor Ocato had just finished speaking. “I should go.”
She walked past him too quickly, and she disappeared into the crowd, only to reappear near the Chancellor, who had put a hand up to silence everybody. Oh yes, he'd almost forgotten, the final speech from the Champion of Cyrodiil to close the night. He entered the ballroom and resumed taking up his position in the far corner.
There was no sign of Talia's sadness, anger or anxiety. She looked confident, regal even, the perfect picture of a Hero.
“Chancellor Ocato, Members of the Elder Council, Counts and Countesses, and our Esteemed Guests, I would like to extend my gratitude for taking the time out to celebrate this momentous occasion...”
“Did you finish your talk?”
Sometimes, Hieronymus was still surprised how silently the Count could move.
“It looked serious,” the Count commented mildly.
“...Mankar Camoran and the Mythic Dawn are a blight upon our society. They sought to destroy the very foundations from which this Empire had been molded...” Talia's strong voice echoed across the room.
Now that he thought of it, why didn't anyone use that balcony? He turned to the Count with a suspicious look. “Did you run interference?”
Count Umbranox sipped his wine, his blue eyes still on Talia's figure. “Perhaps.”
“...Martin was a priest in Kvatch, and he knew nothing about running an Empire, but he knew his duty. He, like his father before him, gave his life to save this Empire, and I want it to be known that he was the true hero that day, not I...”
“Well...” he was at a loss for words. “Thank you.”
He tipped his head to the side in acknowledgment. “I owe it to both of you.”
“...I propose a toast,” Talia lifted up a glass of wine. “To the one true hero of Mundus! To the Dragonborn! To Martin Septim!”
“To Martin Septim!” The crowd echoed and they gulped down their wine.
“What did she do for you?”
They both turned back to the woman who was now staring at Martin Septim's portrait, looking pensive and nostalgic.
“She gave me my life back.”
The Count finished his wine and handed his glass to Hieronymus, who took it without looking away.
“And I would want her to get hers back.”
Hieronymus watched as Talia smiled and traded conversation with the Counts and Countesses, looking happy to be there. But he couldn't forget the look on her face: the guilt, the fear, the anger, the grief, and the anxiety.
What a horrible thing it was, to love someone so unattainable.
Hieronymus might just know the feeling.