The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 34

 

The Emperor’s Tower

 

To be flayed alive – it was the worst of fates. Of all the torments inquisitors had devised, it was said to be the most painful. I couldn’t let it happen. I leapt from my chair and ran over to Elenwen, groaning through my gag and nodding my head emphatically.

“Wait!” she ordered. I could hear several held breaths releasing behind me, as Lydia and the two torturers relaxed. “Do you relent?” she asked. I nodded. “Will you answer every question I ask and perform every deed I require?” I nodded again. “Good. Naris, heal her sweetheart’s wounds. Now, we must have words, and how are we to do that?”

It took the Altmer some time to arrange to unbind me. Elenwen trusted me even less than Legate Rikke had, sparing no precaution. Half a dozen wizards and archers stood about the chamber and on the balconies above, ready for any tricks I might pull. They put Lydia back into her cell, where I could see her through the bars. They had at least given her a stool to sit on. Naris was seeing to her wounds, while another guard stood behind her, weapon drawn. I knew that she would die the instant I made any aggressive move. They had gagged her as well – she wouldn’t stop pleading with me not to relent, even after I had promised to cooperate. Then they seated me at a table in the center of the dungeon chamber. A guard removed my gag and unbound my hands, then stood behind me, blade drawn.

“Ah, that’s better, you look much nicer without that kerchief in your mouth,” Elenwen said. I tried to rub the feeling back into my hands after having them bound for so long. “Please, help yourself to food and drink,” she said, gesturing at the bread, smoked fish, and jug of water laid out before me.

This time, I could not resist. Nothing had passed my lips for nearly two days now. I drank deeply from the ewer, not bothering to fill a mug, then ripped a chunk from the round loaf of bread, stuffing it greedily into my mouth. Elenwen chose not to sit, but paced up and down before me while I ate my fill. When my gluttony began to slow, she seated herself opposite me.

“Now, before we get to the specific service you can perform for us, I have questions. I trust that you will be completely forthright with me. We can always go back to torturing your sweetheart if I feel you are withholding.”

I nodded at her as I bit into a slab of smoked salmon.

“First, whom do you serve? Is it the Blades? And do they have anything to do with the return of the dragons?”

“The Blades?” I said, keeping my face as blank as possible. I almost had to suppress a smile: the ancient enemies each suspected the other of doing the impossible. At least now I knew that the Thalmor had nothing to do with the dragons – unless Elenwen was trying to misdirect me.

“Yes, the Blades, and don’t tell me you don’t know who they are.”

“Hmm,” I said, striving to appear lost in thought. “I think I remember reading about them. Weren’t they the emperor’s guard, before the Penitus Oculatus took over that role?”

“Do you think this is some classroom test?” Elenwen demanded. “Do you think I am interested in ancient lore? The only bit of history I care about is that the Blades once acted as protectors of the Dragonborn. It stands to reason that any remaining Blades would seek you out.”

“You mean they still exist?”

“Of course they do – well, one or two at least – or I wouldn’t be asking you the question. We did our best to wipe them out during the Great War. Now tell me, has anyone contacted you since you were first recognized as the Dragonborn?” Her eyes bored into mine, her eyebrows like twin daggers making a V on her brow.

I was glad to have an honest answer at hand. “Certainly someone contacted me – the Greybeards. They shouted Dovahkiin from High Hrothgar shortly after I used my first shout.”

“The Greybeards! Yes, we know about them. They hardly matter, sequestered far up on the Throat of the World.”

“Yet you asked me whom I serve. If I serve anyone, it is the Greybeards – or perhaps they serve me, I don’t know. And I owe my fealty to Jarl Balgruuf. That is the gods’ honest truth.”

“Yes, Balgruuf,” Elenwen said, seemingly satisfied with my answer about the Blades. “What can you tell us of his plans?”

“That is simple. He plans to stay out of the war.”

“Yet he threw my emissaries out of his city. And you interfered with our plans there, and possibly killed one of my justiciars. How can either of you claim to be neutral?”

“My jarl’s primary duty is to the people of Whiterun. I’m sure he sought only to protect them from being snatched out of their beds, as any jarl should. As for me, I wanted only to help the officials of Hammerfell capture an outlaw from their country. They offered a nice reward, and it could possibly spare them war and grievous casualties. Preventing people from suffering and dying – call it a weakness of mine, but don’t call it choosing sides.”

“Well aren’t you just too good to be true? But I have no doubt you act with the usual selfishness when you and your loved ones are threatened. And what of Ulfric? Tullius says he believes you have no part in the Stormcloak uprising, though you escaped Helgen with them. We know you have visited Windhelm. Tell me what you know of his plans.”

“He shared nothing with me willingly, but I did overhear them planning to attack Falkreath. But that, you already know.”

She looked at me for a moment, gauging whether I was telling the full truth.

I was growing tired of this interview. “Listen, Ambassador Elenwen, I can best serve your interests if you let me go about my business. You and the Aldmeri Dominion will have no world to rule if Alduin destroys it first.”

“Ah, now we come to it,” Elenwen said. “You would have me set you free to fight the dragons. And what of your housecarl?”

“I cannot defeat Alduin without her.”

“How very convenient. Do you really expect me to set the pair of you free to battle some Nord myth?”

“A myth? How can you not believe in Alduin when you have the Dragonborn sitting before you? The prophecy foretells that we will appear at the same time.”

“We do not credit Nord fairy-tales. This Alduin who is supposedly an avatar of Akatosh himself, the godhood of Talos, this Dragonborn business, it is all barbarian nonsense. And as for this power of the Voice that you wield, we do not fully understand it, but it cannot be from the gods. Akatosh did not send you here or give you this power. It is just some stronger form of magic. In fact, I expect you to help us understand the Thu’um and teach us how to use it. If a mixed-blood such as yourself can wield it, certainly a High Elf can.”

“But what about the dragons?” I demanded. “Surely you cannot deny their existence, nor the destruction they are causing! They may not have brought any harm to you yet, but that day cannot be far off.”

“Yes, the Nords and their dragons! We cannot explain the serpents’ return, yet they are little more than a distraction – and a diverting one! It is quite refreshing to see the Nords and the Imperial Legion turn aside from their usual battles to fight the beasts. But if a dragon comes our way, I am confident my justiciars can handle it. So no, we will not be releasing you to fight dragons, mythical or otherwise. You are too powerful, and we have better uses for you.”

“Such as?”

“All in good time. But first, I need a final promise from you. Do you swear on your sweetheart’s life to do all that I command and serve the Aldmeri Dominion faithfully?”

“May I take the offer Tullius made, to do battle with Ulfric Stormcloak?”

“So that’s what Tullius wanted from you?” She smiled at the thought. “And I don’t doubt that you could do it. But no, that offer was never on the table. Tullius was foolish to think we would allow it. Unrest in Skyrim is all very well, whether by the Nords or the Reachmen, but an outright Imperial victory? That, we cannot tolerate. Now, do you swear your allegiance to the Aldmeri Dominion? Time is short and I grow impatient.”

I hesitated only for a second. If I refused now, they would go back to torturing Lydia, and I couldn’t stand that. “I do,” I said, holding Elenwen’s gaze. From within her cell, I could hear Lydia protesting through her gag. “So what is it you want me to do?” I asked.

“A simple task, really, one that will prove your loyalty and bind you to us for once and all. You will assassinate the Emperor of Tamriel.”

I stared at the ambassador. “Simple,” I repeated.

“Certainly, for one of your skills,” Elenwen replied. “You will pose as the chef known as the Gourmet. You will poison Titus Mede using this vial of Jarrin root extract.” She set a tiny blue vial on the table between us. “When he is dead, you will declare your true identity, claiming you acted out of revenge for your recent capture. Then you will escape and return here by whatever means necessary. If you are captured, it will do no good to place the blame on us – well before the assassination, we will put it about that you have escaped.”

I considered for a moment. The plot had a good chance of success, though I had no wish to kill the emperor. A weak puppet of the Aldmeri Dominion he might be, but I would not be the one who decided his fate. Yet I saw no way out of it. Then I thought, if the emperor was the puppet of the Thalmor, why would they have him assassinated? I made the mistake of voicing this thought to the ambassador.

“You think I will reveal our motives to you?” she demanded. “You have much to learn about how this relationship works. Clearly, the Greybeards and this Dragonborn business have given you ideas above your station. What were you before you were called to High Hrothgar and named Thane of Whiterun? An orphaned mixed-blood shop-girl, wasn’t it? Well, now you’re our thrall, and if you are lucky you can return to being a shop-girl when this is all over. I gave you the opportunity for great power and you refused. Now you will grovel for what crumbs we give you.”

While not forthcoming on the finer points of Thalmor strategy, Elenwen was happy to answer my practical questions and objections about her plot. The chef I was replacing was famous throughout Tamriel for his many cookbooks, yet no one knew what he looked like, or even whether he was male or female, a Breton, a Cyrodiilian, or a Redguard. Only the Thalmor had discovered his true identity: Balagog gro-Nolob, the Orc who was staying at the Nightgate Inn, waiting for his next job. The Thalmor had gotten him out of the way quietly, opening the way for an impostor to take his place.

The Gourmet was scheduled to cook for the wedding of Vittoria Vici of Solitude, Emperor Titus Mede II’s niece. The emperor would attend the wedding, and the Gourmet was scheduled to prepare a special tasting course for him two days before the main event. The plans had been put in disarray by the dragon attack, but now the tasting would take place two days hence, in the Emperor’s Tower in Castle Dour. The emperor had just arrived in Solitude the day before.

“But how can you expect me to prepare a gourmet meal consisting of many courses?” I asked. “I am no chef.”

“Ah, good point,” said Elenwen. “Yet you won’t need to. Luckily for us, the Gourmet sent all his recipes ahead. He was only scheduled to arrive at mid-day on the day of the tasting to oversee the final preparations. Just taste the dishes, suggest a few additions, say a word here and there in Breton, smack your lips, bark at the kitchen staff, and drink plenty of wine while you work. You’ll pass for a chef easily.”

“Let’s assume I carry out this plan,” I said. “What makes you think I’ll return here?”

“Oh, I am certain you will,” Elenwen replied, “because your sweetheart’s life depends on it. Several justiciars will accompany you to Solitude. Others will follow you, and you will be watched right up to the doors of the Emperor’s Tower and into its kitchen. Remember, our emissaries have free run of the castle. We even hope to place one in the emperor’s chambers during the tasting course. And once the deed is done, you will escape through a hidden postern door whose location I will show you. Then you will report immediately to one of the justiciars waiting just beyond the city gate. Should that prove impossible during your escape, you will return here by noon the day after the tasting.”

“Where is here?” I interrupted. “I was unconscious and hooded when your soldiers delivered me.”

She smiled at me. “I suppose we cannot keep you in the dark about your whereabouts if we expect you to return here on your own. You are in the basement of our embassy in Skyrim, just a two-hour ride from Solitude. Pay close attention on your way to the city, and you should be able to find your way back. And remember, if you do not, your sweetheart dies. I promise it will be a slow, painful death.”

So there it was. I was trapped like a cave bear in a pit. I could think of no further objections to wiggle out of my role in this plot. It seemed I was now fated to assassinate the emperor. Perhaps he wasn’t as powerful as past emperors, now ruling only Cyrodiil, Skyrim, and High Rock, barely a third of the Empire’s historic domain. Yet the emperor was still a powerful man. What was more, I had never killed anyone in cold blood before – at least, not anyone who didn’t deserve it.

I spent the rest of the time before my departure restoring my disguise with black hair dye and fresh covering for my tattoo. It wouldn’t do to walk into Solitude and be recognized as the one who had just been reported missing by the Thalmor. I rested and ate and drank heartily to restore my strength after days of fasting. All the while I pondered the strange twists my journey had taken. My quest to face Alduin now seemed but a distant memory. I chafed to think how many dragons had spawned or how the World Eater’s plans had advanced in my absence. Yet outweighing all of these thoughts was my fear for Lydia. I saw no choice but to obey Elenwen’s demands, since I had no doubt that her threats were sincere.

I shocked myself by this turn in my thinking. Would I really put the world in further danger for my housecarl? … my friend? … my…? I knew not what to call her. I was sure I could elude my captors once they unbound me and removed the magicka collar. Then I would be free to return to High Hrothgar and get back to my task. But I knew I couldn’t do it. Lydia meant the world to me. I hadn’t known what that old cliché meant, but now it was literally true. I would let Alduin bring about the destruction of the world before I let the Thalmor further harm Lydia.

Though I was the Dragonborn, a thane of Whiterun, tasked with saving the world, at heart I was still just a lovesick girl. How had this come to pass? How had I fallen in love with Lydia without even knowing it – indeed, without even realizing such feelings between two women were possible? I looked back over the previous weeks and months, the accidental touches while sharing camp chores, the idle glances as we rode along together. The many times we had saved each other’s lives. Our trials and adventures had forged a deeper bond between us than the usual courtship rituals. Then I remembered her last words to me – “It’s about time, my thane.” Had she loved me in silence all this time?

They kept us apart while we awaited the time of my departure. Elenwen had me bound and gagged at night, and a close watch kept on both Lydia and me in the daytime. Finally the time was near, and I demanded to see Lydia before we left. “I need to know that she is alive and well treated before I depart on your mission,” I told Elenwen.

The ambassador ushered me into Lydia’s cell, stepping in close behind me. Lydia sat slumped over on the stool, two guards standing behind her, blades at the ready. She seemed to have suffered no further harm, though the many welts covering her arms and legs were still red and sore-looking, despite Naris’ efforts to heal them. I wished I could have done the job myself.

Lydia looked up at me reproachfully as the guard took the gag from her mouth. “You have disgraced me, my thane,” she said. “I should have died a good death for you, and I would have. If only I hadn’t weakened and screamed.”

“Yet little good your death would have done,” I said, “for they would soon have turned their vile implements on me. I doubt I could have held out as long as you did. You were brave! You have lost no honor.”

“We both should have died before betraying our jarl and the people of Skyrim.”

“You are probably right,” I said. “But imagine if the situation were reversed. Could you have watched as they flayed me alive?” I let her ponder that for a moment, seeing the doubt in her eyes. “I thought not. So do not judge me too harshly. Elenwen has promised to treat you well while I am away.”

“I care not how I am treated, I am so ashamed,” she said. “But I pray for your safe return.”

“As do I, my … friend,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I promise you, I will return.” Her hands were bound, so we could not hug. I would not kiss her in front of Elenwen. I couldn’t say what I wanted to – that all was not as it seemed, that I would get us out of this mess, but I tried to communicate as much with a long look into her eyes.

Elenwen interrupted us. “Ah, young love! How charming, really! Yet I believe you will find as you grow older, Deirdre, that the things we love are also the source of our greatest weakness. Better by far to take our pleasures where we can and move on, letting nothing gain too great a hold on us. But that wisdom can only come through years of bitter experience – experience which you are gaining even now.” She gave a little smile as she said it.

It is often said that our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses. But in that moment, as I pondered Elenwen’s callous words, I wondered whether it could also be true that our greatest weaknesses were at the same time our greatest strengths. Talos knew, I needed strength from somewhere.

 

*~*~*

 

Our wagon pulled up directly before the doors of the Emperor’s Tower. No getting down and walking from the city gate for the Gourmet, who was far too important for that. I sat on the front seat between the drayman – a human agent of the Thalmor – and an elf disguised as a chef’s assistant. I wore a chef’s hat Elenwen had given me and a smock over my mage’s robes. In the back, under a tarp that made them look like lumpy sacks of potatoes, several Thalmor fighters lay hidden. I had seen many more justiciars ranging ahead, behind, and to the sides of our wagon as we made our way here. Getting the Dragonborn unwillingly to Solitude was quite an operation.

Even with all these precautions, Sanyon, the Altmer next to me, waited until just before we came in sight of the city to undo my binds and remove the magicka collar.

We got down from the wagon and I presented the guard outside the Emperor’s Tower with my writ inviting me to cook for Titus Mede. While he went over it, I looked up at the scene of Lydia’s and my last moments of freedom. The thrill of that victory over the dragons, the roar of the crowd, Lydia’s and my first and only kiss – they seemed to belong to another lifetime. I wrenched my thoughts back to the present with difficulty. I needed my wits about me if I was to carry off this scheme.

“It’s about time you got here,” said the guard, an officer in the Penitus Oculatus, the emperor’s special security force. “The cook is about out of her head with worry.”

“I’m here now,” I said. “The tasting will come off magnificently, or I’m not the Gourmet.”

“I’ll wait for you just outside the city gate,” the drayman said to me before we went in. Then, under his breath, he added, “And don’t be late, or you know what will happen.” He leered at me as he said it, as if hoping I’d run and he would get to take part in whatever the Thalmor had planned for Lydia should I break my vow.

The guard led me into the tower and up a flight of stairs. Sanyon followed behind, doing his best to play the humble chef’s assistant. At the landing on the second floor, the guard led us to the left into a bustling kitchen. To the right of the landing, twin oak doors closed off the room beyond – the emperor’s dining room, I assumed.

“Praise the Eight, you’re here!” the cook exclaimed as we entered. She was a plump woman with blonde curls poking damply out of her cook’s cap. “I’ve had so many questions for you!”

“Were my recipes unclear?” I asked, trying to adopt the haughty tones I imagined an acclaimed chef would use.

“No, very helpful,” she said, taken aback. “But it never hurts to make double sure, especially if you can speak to an eminence such as yourself in person.”

“Well, I’m sure everything will be fine,” I said. “It smells heavenly in here.” I wasn’t feigning my appreciation for the smells coming from the kitchen. In one great fireplace, a whole suckling pig was roasting. In another, something wonderful was braising in a heavy pot. Assistant cooks ran here and there, sautéing onions on a wood stove, chopping vegetables, plucking herbs, rolling out pastry dough. A dozen blackbirds flitted in a cage nearby. I was so used to the hard fare of my captivity that my mouth began to water. And to think, this was all for the benefit of one man, and perhaps a few guests.

“Sanyon, help these cooks with their preparations,” I ordered. “And chef…”

“Not a chef, ma’am, just a cook. Gianna’s the name.”

“Well, Gianna, bring me some wine, then we’ll begin tasting and adjusting.”

Gianna’s modesty was unwarranted, as it turned out. She and her kitchen crew were well up to the task of preparing the Gourmet’s tasting menu. And Sanyon had some skill with kitchen knives, playing the part of the chef’s assistant well. He even flirted with Gianna’s helpers. I had only to move from dish to dish, suggesting an addition here and there.

“How about a Giant’s Toe in this braising liquid?” I said. Gianna looked at me skeptically, but Sanyon nodded with enthusiasm. “Go ahead,” I said, appearing to take a long quaff from my goblet. “You don’t doubt the Gourmet, do you? And let’s try some vampire dust sprinkled over the blackbirds once you’ve got them in that pie.” When her back was turned I dumped my wine into a dirty pot nearby. I still needed to keep my wits about me.

Finally, the hour for the tasting course approached and everything was nearly ready. “Now,” I said, “you’ll be serving the soup first, am I right?”

“Yes, chef, as you instructed,” Gianna said. “Le Potage du l’Gourmet, your specialty.”

“Excellent,” I said. “And I have brought my secret ingredient, to be added at the very last moment.” I pulled the vial of Jarrin root from my robes and handed it to Gianna.

“Hmm, what is it?” she asked, removing the stopper from the vial and sniffing at it.

“If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret ingredient, would it?” I said. “Wait, don’t taste it! It … it’s measured to the exact amount my recipe requires.”

Gianna didn’t seem to notice how flustered I was as she emptied the vial into the soup pot. I watched with deepening regret as she and a helper transferred the soup to a gold-filigreed tureen. Could I really go through with Elenwen’s plot? Yet what choice did I have? Then I remembered Master Aren in Labyrinthian, pleading with the ghosts of his friends to forgive him because he didn’t have a choice. Yet there is always a choice.

Gianna placed the tureen and a serving ladle on a tray and made to pick it up. “Wait,” I said. “I always like to present the first course myself.” I took up the tray and turned toward the door, Sanyon following me. Gianna held a hand out to the High Elf. “We should remain here. The emperor always says too many cooks spoil the party. He likes to dine alone or with just a few friends. I don’t know how he’ll manage the wedding banquet, with the throngs we are expecting!”

“But I am the Gourmet’s trusted assistant,” Sanyon protested. “I aid her in everything, even serving!”

“You heard the cook,” said the guard outside the door. “No one goes in but the Gourmet.”

“Come,” said Gianna, “we need your help in here with the next course. Those blackbirds aren’t going to fly themselves into that pie.”

As I walked across the hall, the tray held before me, I thought about my predicament and Elenwen’s words about love being a weakness. Yet I did not feel my love for Lydia was a weakness, though I knew it had helped to put me in this situation. My love for her was a glowing ball in my chest, sending warmth through my body, and with it, the certainty that we would soon be reunited. A great calm settled over me, and I knew that somehow I would get us out of this. With Sanyon out of the way, it would be easier.

The guard opened the twin oak doors for me and ushered me into the small dining room. “May I present the Gourmet,” he said, and shut the door behind me.

The emperor was a tall man with a balding pate and a gray beard. He wore a closely-woven tunic with a rich fur collar, intricately decorated with fine needlework. Two young women were seated at table with him: a noblewoman with dark brown hair and another in robes even more fine than the emperor’s. She wore a ruby circlet on her brow.

“Your Grace,” I said, giving as much of a curtsy as I could manage while carrying the tureen on its tray.

“Ah, there you are,” the emperor said, “the Gourmet herself. Strange, I wasn’t expecting one so young … or so female. But come, we are eager to try your creations. Oh, but I am rude, may I present my niece, Vittoria Vici, for whom we are throwing this to-do. And of course, Jarl Elisif the Fair, I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure.”

I bowed my head slightly to each. The Fair was an apt appellation for Elisif – she had fine features, striking blue eyes, and luxuriant honey-blonde hair. Though a widow, she was still young, not more than one or two and twenty. I could see why Torygg had chosen her for his queen. But did that qualify her to rule over the people of Haafingar Hold, much less Skyrim?

“I am pleased to serve my specialty, Le Potage du l’Gourmet,” I said. I made to serve the emperor first.

“Now, now, ladies first,” the emperor said.

“Of course, silly me!” I replied. “It’s just that I’ve never served an emperor before.” Would I end the night with not just Titus Mede’s blood on my hands, but that of his niece and Jarl Elisif as well?

“So, even the famous Gourmet gets nervous on these occasions of state!” the emperor exclaimed as I held the tray so Elisif could serve herself. “Just relax. I don’t bite, or not much anyway.”

I took the tray to Vittoria and then to the emperor, letting them serve themselves from the tureen, as was proper in noble households. I had read that in a book somewhere. Then I set the tray on a sideboard and waited. Elenwen had said that one tiny drop would kill the strongest man. My heart beat rapidly while I pretended to wait on the emperor rendering his verdict.

First, there was a prayer. “Let us give thanks to the Eight for what we are about to receive,” Titus Mede intoned as the three held hands. When the blessing was done, the emperor took up his spoon and plunged it eagerly into his bowl.

I could not help myself. “Wait! Don’t!” I said, trying not to shout. I couldn’t let Sanyon or any other Thalmor hear me. I didn’t really know what I was doing – I just had to trust that deep certainty that all would come out right in the end, though at the moment, I didn’t see how.

The three diners looked up at me in surprise. “Why?” demanded the emperor. “What is the meaning of this?”

“The soup,” I said. “It’s poisoned.”

Three spoons clattered to the table, and the emperor stared at me, perplexed. “But if you meant to poison me, why speak up now?”

“Because I could not go through with it, though the Thalmor are forcing me to it.”

If the emperor was surprised at this revelation, he did not show it. Elisif, however, could not contain her shock.

“The Thalmor!” she exclaimed. “But the White-Gold Concordat! We are at peace!”

The emperor kept his eyes on me, as if assessing an opponent, while he addressed Elisif. “And a strange, fitful kind of peace it is. But you are young, Elisif, and little of your training for the high society of Solitude has prepared you to understand relations between the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion. I will have to explain more of it to you one day, especially if you are crowned High Queen of Skyrim.”

“I am learning, your grace, as fast as I can,” she said, her head bowed. “My husband’s death made me see that being a queen is no childhood fairytale. I will learn what it takes to be a jarl, and to be high queen as well.”

“Excellent,” the emperor said. “So you are more than just a pretty face. But now this one had better explain herself,” he said, rising stiffly from his seat and facing me. Now I saw how old he was, weak even. He had once been tall, but now he leaned on the table for support. I had to remind myself that this was the man who had rallied the Legion to drive the Aldmeri forces from the Imperial City. Yet he was also the man who bargained away Skyrim’s freedom to reach peace with the elves.

“Who are you?” he demanded. “I will hazard you’re not the Gourmet.”

“You are right,” I said, doffing my chef’s hat. “I am no chef. I am Deirdre Morningsong, Thane of Whiterun, and the Dragonborn.”

Now it was the emperor’s turn to be shocked. “The Dragonborn! Tullius told me he handed you over to Elenwen.”

Vittoria interrupted. “You don’t much resemble the likeness on those handbills.”

I took up a cloth napkin and dipped it in a ewer, using it to wipe the paste from around my eye. It felt good to be clean of it after so long. “Do you believe me now?” I asked. “I dare not shout to prove my identity, not with a Thalmor agent next door.”

Elisif spoke up. “I should have mentioned it earlier, but we received word at the palace just before I came here. The Dragonborn broke out of the Thalmor embassy this morning.” She turned to me. “And now you would exact revenge for your imprisonment by murdering our emperor.”

“That’s what the Thalmor wanted me to proclaim once the deed was done. Anything to deflect the blame from them.”

“Elisif,” the emperor said, “young Deirdre here may be powerful, yet I doubt she has the resources to concoct such a plot: impersonating the Gourmet, gaining access to our kitchens. No, she at least had help in this. But why?” he said, turning to me. “Why would you do this, or even go as far as you did? You’re free now, after all.”

“Yet they still have my housecarl, whom I hold dear.”

“Yes, the whole city saw,” Vittoria put in. I ignored her.

“And a Thalmor agent is in your kitchen, disguised as the Gourmet’s assistant. I’m sure he is wondering what is taking me so long to return. That poison is supposed to work instantly. If I am not back at the embassy by noon tomorrow having accomplished this deed, Lydia dies. Her life is in my hands, and now it is in yours.”

“A pity … but what would you have me do?”

“If you truly are the ruler of this Empire, then demand that the Thalmor free Lydia. As a loyal retainer of Whiterun, she is one of your sworn subjects.”

For just an instant, I saw doubt and fear in the emperor’s eyes. In that moment I knew he did not rule the Empire. It was as the Stormcloaks said – he was nothing more than a puppet king. Then his indecision passed and he looked at me more sternly.

“Yes, both of you are loyal to Jarl Balgruuf, but is Balgruuf loyal to the Empire? He can’t sit on the fence during this rebellion and then expect Imperial protection for his retainers. Nor can you. You were foolish to reject Tullius’ offer.”

“That offer was not Tullius’ to make. I believe Elenwen said he was foolish to even entertain the possibility.”

The emperor waved his hand at me, then returned to his chair. He tried to make it seem the action of a ruler dismissing an annoying subject, but behind it I could see he was just a frail old man. Yet one not without his own power.

“I should clap you in chains for daring to question my authority,” he said, frowning up at me.

“Your grace,” I said, trying to soften my tone, but not entirely succeeding, “should I remind you that I spared your life just now?”

“Protecting the life of the emperor is no more than I expect from my subjects,” he said with another wave of his hand.

“Yet this city owes its continued existence to Lydia and me. Surely both you and Jarl Elisif owe us some obligation.”

Elisif looked down at the table. “I do,” she said. “Yet how do I know I can trust you? You are rumored to have formed an alliance with that barbarian who murdered my husband. And now you’ve attempted to poison our emperor.”

“Even Tullius knows I did not join the Stormcloaks,” I said. “I want no part of this civil war. I want only to free my housecarl and get back to hunting dragons. And you just saw me stop the emperor from eating that soup.”

Elisif kept looking at the table, clearly at a loss. Meanwhile the emperor eyed me, making some calculation. “Perhaps it’s time you learned you have to make choices in this life. It’s a rare person who gets everything they want – Julianos knows I haven’t. So, if it’s hunting dragons you’re after, then you are free to walk out that door and go about your business.”

“That, I cannot do. The Thalmor will know I have failed in my mission, and Lydia will die a terrible death.”

“So, you must appear to have made a faithful attempt at my assassination? I believe I can help you with that. Guard!”

I could only stare at the emperor as the guard rushed in. “Yes, your grace?” the guard asked, looking from one to the other of us.

Somehow I wasn’t quite aware of what I was doing. I had drawn my breath and braced myself to shout at the emperor, all without knowing it. Elisif and Vittoria were in the path of my shout as well.

“What?” Titus Mede demanded. “Would you use your Voice on us? Tullius told me of your exploits on the castle walls, and Elisif and Vittoria witnessed it for themselves. I have no doubt that we are in your power. But would you use it?”

I admit it, I was sorely tempted. I had spared Titus Mede’s life and saved Jarl Elisif’s city, yet now they would hand me back to the Thalmor. The emperor waited calmly for me to make my decision, but Vittoria and Elisif both looked at me in fear. Could I murder them all in cold blood?

“By rights, your lives should be mine to do with as I will, since I saved you once,” I said. “But I will not.”

“Ah, so wisdom is not lost on your youth. You will come to realize that the greater one’s power becomes, the more difficult the decisions one must make. Do you think it was easy for me to sign the White-Gold Concordat? I had just led the rout of the Aldmeri forces, yet at the cost of many lives, including both my sons. Do you think my hand was quick to sign that damnable piece of parchment? Yet it was the only decision I could make.”

“So, what now?” I asked.

“I will hand you over to the Thalmor. If you tell me the name of the poison you used, I will claim to have detected it with my extraordinary sense of smell. But first, I will leave you with one thought, which may serve some use if you are able to escape the Thalmor’s clutches. It is this: there is a war coming, though not the one you might expect. This Stormcloak business is but a senseless distraction.”

Titus Mede gave a sign and the guard bound my hands behind my back.

“Junius,” the emperor said, “tie up that elf in the kitchen, then send word to Rulindil in the Thalmor headquarters to come here immediately.”

We sat awkwardly while all this was accomplished, the emperor asking me questions about my part in foiling the Thalmor plot in Whiterun. It seemed he knew all about my actions since I returned to Skyrim. “I sought only to prevent further war for Hammerfell,” I said.

“Yet you unwittingly hastened the day when war will return to the Empire. We suspect that the Aldmeri Dominion will turn their attention to us, having had their aspirations in Hammerfell frustrated.”

Just then Junius returned, ushering a justiciar in black wizard’s robes into the room. I recognized him as one of the elves I had seen at the embassy, occasionally conferring with Elenwen in hushed tones. Behind him came another Imperial guard dragging Sanyon, his hands now bound like mine, followed by another Altmer guard.

“Ah, Rulindil,” the emperor said, his voice taking on a commanding tone. Perhaps the Thalmor allowed the emperor to pretend in public that he retained some semblance of power. “I have uncovered a plot on my life and unmasked my assailant as the Dragonborn. I understand she recently escaped your dungeon. I expect you and Elenwen to be more careful with dangerous criminals in future.”

He went on to outline the plot he had uncovered with his sensitive nose. It was fascinating, watching the dance he danced with the Thalmor emissary, each playing his part, the emperor pretending to know nothing of what I had just told him, and Rulindil pretending to be as shocked by the plot as the emperor. Elisif watched from across the table, no doubt learning valuable lessons in the treachery of diplomacy.

“To think, an Altmer was involved in such treason!” Rulindil exclaimed, cuffing Sanyon with the back of his glove. Sanyon played the part of an apprehended villain well.

“You may take the Dragonborn if you promise not to let her escape again,” the emperor said. “We will see that her accomplice receives justice.”

Rulindil had no choice but to let the emperor have his way – to protest in order to save Sanyon would raise the emperor’s suspicions. Sanyon was loyal to the end, following the guard meekly from the room.

“I am surprised you have not gagged the Dragonborn,” Rulindil said, eyeing me suspiciously. “How did you get one so powerful to relent?”

“Perhaps she knows that even she could not fight her way out of such a heavily guarded castle,” Titus Mede replied, but Rulindil still didn’t seem satisfied.

“Well, we had best gag her now,” he said, and the Altmer guard slipped a kerchief over my head and forced it into my mouth.

The justiciars led me out of the Emperor’s Tower and into a waiting wagon. Rulindil got up beside me, the drayman flicked the reins, and we were off, back to the captivity I had nearly escaped.

Rulindil looked at me with a mixture of disapproval and satisfaction. “Tut, tut,” he said, shaking his head. “Elenwen will not be happy with your failure.”

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