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Barenziah fidgeted impatiently while Therris sorted through the papers in the desk. He was being meticulous and methodical, careful to replace everything just as he'd found it. They'd entered a nobleman's house, leaving Straw outside as a lookout. Therris had said it was a simple job but very secret. He hadn't even wanted to bring any other Guild members along. He said he knew he could trust Berry and Straw.
"Tell me what you're looking for and I'll find it," Berry whispered. Therris' night sight wasn't as good as hers and he didn't want to make a light. Berry had never been in such a luxurious place. She gazed around with wonder as they'd made their way through the huge echoing downstairs rooms, but Therris didn't seem interested in anything but the desk in the small book-lined study on the upper floor.
"Ssss't," he hissed angrily.
"Someone's coming!" Berry said, a moment before the door opened and two dark figures appeared. Therris gave her a violent shove toward them and sprang away toward the window. Barenziah's muscles went rigid; she couldn't move or even speak. She watched helplessly as a dark figure leaped after Therris. There were two quick, silent blue flares of light, then Therris folded in a still heap. Outside the study the house had come alive with footsteps and voices calling and the clank of armor.
The big man, a dark elf, half lifted, half dragged Therris to the door and thrust him into waiting arms. A jerk of the elf's head sent his robed companion after him. The elf came over to inspect Barenziah, who was once again able to move, although her head throbbed maddeningly when she did so.
"Open your shirt, Barenziah," the elf said.
Barenziah gaped at him and clutched it closed.
"You are a girl, aren't you, Berry?" he said softly. "You should have stopped dressing as a boy a few months ago, you know. You were only drawing attention to yourself. And calling yourself Berry! Is your friend Straw too stupid to remember anything else?"
"It's a common elf name," Barenziah defended herself.
The man shook his head sadly. "Not among dark elves it isn't, my dear, but you really don't know much about dark elves, do you? I regret that, but it couldn't be helped. No matter. I'll remedy it."
"Who are you?" Barenziah demanded.
"So much for fame," the man shrugged, smiling wryly. "I am Symmachus, my lady, and it's a merry chase you've led me, although I'd guessed you'd head for Morrowind. You had a bit of luck. A body was found in Whiterun that was thought to be Straw's so we stopped looking for the pair. That was careless of me, yet I'd not have thought you'd have stayed together this long."
"Where is he? Is he all right?"
"Oh, he's fine for now. In custody, of course. You -- care for him, then?" he stared at her with curiosity out of red eyes that were so strange to her, except in her own seldom-seen image.
"He's my friend," Barenziah said. The words came in a tone that sounded dull and hopeless in her own ears. Symmachus! A general in the Imperial Army, said to have the friendship and the ear of Tiber Septim himself.
"Ai. You seem to have several unsuitable friends, if you'll forgive my saying so, my lady." As they talked the bustle and flurry in the house had died away, although she could hear people, presumably the residents, whispering together not far off. The tall elf seated himself on a corner of the desk. He seemed quite relaxed and prepared to stay awhile.
Several? "W-what's going to happen to them? To me?"
"Ah. As you know this house belongs to the commander of the Imperial troops in this area." Barenziah gasped and Symmachus looked up sharply. "You didn't know? You are rash, even for seventeen. You must always know what it is you do."
"B-but the G-guild w-wouldn't -- " Barenziah was trembling. The Thieves' Guild would never have attempted a mission that involved Imperial policies. No one dared oppose Tiber Septim, at least no one she knew of.
"I daresay. It's unlikely that Therris had Guild approval for this job. I wonder--" Symmachus examined the desk carefully, pulling out its drawers. He selected one, placed its contents on the desk top and removed the false bottom. There was a folded sheet of paper inside. It seemed to be a map of some sort. Barenziah edged closer to see it. Symmachus held it away from her, laughing. "Rash indeed!" He glanced it over, then folded and replaced it.
"You advised me to seek knowledge."
"So I did, so I did." Suddenly he seemed to be in high good humor. "We must be going, my dear lady."
He shepherded her to the door, down the stairs and out into the night air. No one was about. Barenziah's eyes darted to the shadows. She wondered if she could outrun him, or elude him somehow.
"You're not thinking of attempting to escape, are you? Don't you want to hear what my plans for you are first?" He sounded a bit hurt.
"Perhaps you'd rather hear about your friends first."
"No." He looked pleased. It was the answer he wanted, but it was also the truth. While Barenziah was concerned for her friends, especially Straw, she was far more concerned for herself.
"You will take your rightful place as Queen of Mournhold."
Her heart leapt. It was really true then!
Symamchus explained that this had been his, and Tiber Septim's plan for her all along. That Mournhold, which had been under military rule for the dozen years since she had left was to be returned, gradually, to civilian government, under Imperial guidance, of course, and as a part of the Imperial Province of Morrowind.
"But why was I sent to Darkmoor."
"For safekeeping. Why did you run away?"
Barenziah shrugged. "I saw no reason to stay. I should have been told."
"You would have been by now. I had in fact sent for you to be removed to Imperial City to spend some time as a part of the Emperor's household. As for your destiny, it should have been obvious to you. Tiber Septim does not keep those he has no use for, and what else could you be that is of use to him?"
"I know nothing of him or you."
"Then know this: Tiber Septim rewards friend and foe alike according to their deserts."
Barenziah chewed on that for a few moments. "Straw has deserved well of me and has never done anyone any harm. He is not a member of the Thieves' Guild. He came along to protect me. He earns our keep by running errands, and--"
Symmachus waved her to silence. "I know all about Straw," he said, "and about Therris. So? What would you?"
"Straw wants a little farm. If I'm to be rich, then I would give that to him."
"Very well. He shall have it. And Therris?"
"He betrayed me," Barenziah said in a low voice. Therris should have told her the risks the job entailed. Further, he'd pushed her right into their foes' arms in an attempt to save himself.
"Well, he should be made to suffer for it, shouldn't he?"
"That seems reasonable. What form should the suffering take?"
Barenziah balled her hands into fists. She'd like to beat and claw at the Khajiit herself, but that didn't seem very queenly. "A whipping. Would twenty stripes be too many do you think? I don't want to do him any permanent injury."
"I shall arrange it."
Barenziah spent two days in Symmachus' apartment during which she was kept very busy. There was a dark elf woman named Drelliane who saw to their needs, although she did not seem to be exactly a servant as she took her meals with them. Nor was she his wife. Drelliane seemed amused when Barenziah asked her about that. She simply said she was in Symmachus' employ and did whatever he asked of her.
With Drelliane's assistance several fine gowns and pairs of shoes were ordered for her, plus a riding habit and boots, along with other small necessities. Barenziah was given a room to herself. Symmachus was out a great deal. She saw him at most meals, but he said little about himself or what he had been doing, although he was cordial and polite, was quite willing to converse on most subjects, and seemed interested in anything she had to say. Drelliane was much the same. Barenziah found them pleasant enough, but hard to get to know, as Katisha would have put it. She felt an odd disappointment. These were the first dark elves with whom she'd associated closely. She had expected to feel comfortable with them, to feel, at last, that this was where she belonged. Instead she found herself yearning for her Nord friends, Katisha and Straw. When Symmachus told her they were to set out for Imperial City on the morrow, she asked if she could say goodbye to her friends.
"Katisha?" he asked. "Well enough. I suppose I owe her something. She it was who led me to you by telling me of a lonely dark elf girl named Berry who need elven friends -- and sometimes dressed as a boy. She has no association with the Thieves' Guild. And no one associated with the Thieves' Guild seems to know your true identity, save Therris. That is well. I prefer that your former Guild membership not be made public knowledge. You will speak of it to no one. It does not become an Imperial queen."
"No one knows but Straw and Therris. They won't tell anyone."
"No, they won't." He didn't know that Katisha knew then!
Straw came to their apartment the morning of their departure, and they were left alone in the parlor, although Barenziah knew that the other elves were well within hearing. Straw looked drawn and pale. They hugged one another silently for a few minutes. Straw's shoulders were shaking and tears were rolling down his cheeks, but he said nothing.
Barenziah tried a smile. "So we both get what we want. I'm to be Queen of Mournhold and you'll be king of your own farm. I'll write you. You must find a scribe so you can write me, too." Straw shook his head sadly, and when Barenziah persisted, he opened his mouth and pointed inside, making an inarticulate noise. His tongue was gone! Barenziah collapsed onto a chair and wept noisily.
"Why?" she demanded of Symmachus, when Straw had been ushered away. "Why?"
Symmachus shrugged. "He knows too much of you. He could be dangerous. At least he's alive, and he won't need his tongue to farm."
"I hate you!" Barenziah screamed at him, then leaned over and vomited on the floor. She continued to revile him between intermittent bouts of nausea. He listened stolidly for some time, while Drelliane cleaned up after her. Finally, he told her to cease or he would gag her for the journey.
They stopped at Katisha's house. Symmachus and Drelliane didn't dismount. All seemed normal but Barenziah was frightened as she knocked on the door. Katisha answered her knock. She'd obviously been weeping, but she embraced Barenziah.
"Why are you crying?" Barenziah asked.
"For Therris, of course. You haven't heard? He's dead. He was caught stealing from the commandant's house. Poor fellow, but it was so foolish of him. Oh, Barenziah, he was drawn and quartered this very dawn by the commandant's order. I went; he asked for me. It was terrible; he suffered so before he died. I'll never forget it. I looked for you and Straw but no one knew where you'd got to. That's Symmachus you're with, isn't it? You know, the moment I saw him, I thought, this is the one for Barenziah! I told him about you, you know."
"Yes," Barenziah said. "Katisha, I love you, but please don't ever tell anyone else anything about me. Ever. Swear you won't. Especially not Symmachus. And look after poor Straw for me." Katisha promised, puzzled but willing. "Berry, it wasn't somehow because of me that Therris was caught? I never said anything about Therris to Symmachus."
Barenziah assured her that it wasn't, that an informer had told of the Imperial Guard of Therris' plans, which was probably a lie, but Katisha badly needed some kind of comfort.
"Oh, I'm glad of that, if I can be glad of anything just now. I'd hate to think-- but how could I have known? And Symmachus is very handsome, don't you think? And charming."
"I don't know," Barenziah said. "I haven't really thought about it. There hasn't been time." She explained about being Queen of Mournhold and going to live in Imperial City for awhile first. "He was looking for me. I don't think he thinks of me as a woman at all. He said I didn't look like a boy, though," she added in the face of Katisha's incredulity. She knew that Barenziah evaluated every male she saw in terms of sexual desirability. "I suppose it's the shock of finding out that I really am a queen," she added, and Katisha agreed that that must be something of a shock, although one there was no likelihood of her experiencing first hand.
Their party left Rifton by the great south gate. Once through Symmachus tapped her shoulder and pointed back to the gate. "I thought you might want to say good-bye to Therris, too," he said. Barenziah stared briefly but steadily at the head impaled on a spike above the gate. The birds were at it, but the face was still recognizable.
"I think he will not hear me," she said. "Let's be on our way, shall we?"
Symmachus was clearly disappointed by her lack of reaction. "You heard of this from Katisha?"
"Of course. She attended the execution." Barenziah said casually. If he didn't know already, he'd find out soon enough; she was sure of that.
"Did she know Therris belonged to the Guild?"
"Everyone knew that. It's only lower ranking members like me who are supposed to keep their membership secret. The ranking officers are well known. But you know all that, don't you?" She smiled archly at him.
"So you told her who you were and whence you'd come, but not about the Guild."
"The Guild membership was not my secret to tell. The other was. There is a difference. Besides, Katisha is a very honest person. Had I told her it would have lessened me in her eyes. She was always after Therris to take up a more honest line of work. I value her good opinion. She also thought I'd be happier if I'd settle down with just one man friend, one of my own race. You, in fact. Isn't it odd how wishes come true sometimes, but not the way you want them to?"
"Yes. Very odd." Something about the way he said it made her think that she herself was one of his wishes that had come true in a way that wasn't altogether to his liking.
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