Barenziah stood before the Emperor's throne,
explaining Mournhold's straits. She'd waited weeks for an
audience with Uriel Septim, fobbed off on pretext or another.
"His Excellency is indisposed." "An urgent
matter demands his attention." "I am sorry, your
Highness, there must be some mistake. Your appointment is
for next week. No, see..." And now it was not going well.
He did not even seem to be listening to her. He hadn't invited
her to sit, nor had he dismissed the children. Helseth stood
still as a carved statue, but little Morgiah had begun to
He had first greeted the three of them with
a too-bright smile of welcome that did not reach his eyes.
Then, as she presented her children, he had gazed at them
with a fixed attention that was real, yet inappropriate. Barenziah
had been dealing with humans for nearly five hundred years
now and had developed skill at reading their expressions and
movement that was far beyond that any human ever learned.
Try as the Emperor might to conceal it, there was a hunger
in his eyes, and something more. Regret. Why? He had several
fine children of his own. Why covet hers? And why look at
her with an intense, though, brief yearning? Ah, well, perhaps
he was tired of his Lady. Humans were fickle minded. But after
that one long, burning glance, his gaze had shifted away as
she began to speak of her mission, and he sat still as stone.
Puzzled, Barenziah stared into the pale set
face, looking for some trace of the Septims she'd known. She
hadn't known Uriel Septim well, having met him only once when
he was still a child and then at his coronation twenty years
before. He'd been stern and dignified then, yet not icily
remote as this man was. Despite the physical resemblance,
he didn't seem to be the same man at all. Not the same, yet
something about him was familiar to her, more familiar than
it should be, some trick of posture or gesture ... Suddenly
she felt very warm, as if lava had been poured over her. Illusion!
She had studied well the arts of illusion since Nightingale
had fooled her so badly. She had learned to detect it and
she felt it now, as certainly as a blind man could feel the
sun on his face.
Illusion, but why? Her mind worked furiously
even as her mouth went on reciting details about the Mournhold
economy. Vanity? Humans were oft as ashamed of the signs of
age as elves were proud of them. Yet the face Uriel Septim
wore seemed consistent with his age. Barenziah dared use none
of her magic arts. Even petty nobles had means of detecting,
if not shielding themselves from these in their halls. The
use of magic here would bring down his wrath as surely as
drawing a knife would. Magic. Illusion.
Suddenly she thought of Nightingale and briefly
he sat before her, only saddened. Trapped. And then that vision
faded and another man sat there, like Nightingale and yet
unlike. Pale skin, red eyes and elven ears and about him a
fierce glow of concentration, an aura of energy, a shrinking
horror. This man was capable of anything! And then, once again
she beheld the face of Uriel Septim. How could she be sure
she wasn't imagining things? Perhaps her mind was playing
tricks on her. She felt a sudden vast weariness, as if she'd
been carrying a heavy burden too long and too far.
"Do you remember, Excellency, Symmachus
and I had dinner with your family shortly after your father's
coronation. You were no older than little Morgiah here. We
were greatly honored to be the only guests that evening, except
for your best friend Justin, of course."
"Ah, yes," the Emperor said. "I
believe I do recall that."
"You and Justin were such friends. I
was told he died not long after. A great pity."
"Indeed. I still do not like to speak
of him." His eyes were wary. "Ah, as for your request,
my lady, we shall take it under advisement and let you know."
Barenziah bowed, as did her children. A nod
dismissed them, and they backed away from the presence. Barenziah
took a deep breath. "Justin" had been an imaginary
friend, although Uriel had insisted that a place be set for
Justin at every meal! Not only that, "Justin" had
been a girl, despite the boy name. Symmachus had kept up the
family joke long after "Justin" had gone wherever
such childhood friends go, inquiring seriously after Justin's
well-being whenever he and Uriel Septim met, and being responded
to as seriously. The last Barenziah had heard "Justin",
after an adventurous youth, had married a high elf and settled
in Lilandril. The man occupying the Emperor's chair was not
Uriel Septim! Nightingale! A chord of recognition rang through
her and Barenziah knew that she was right. It was he, indeed!
Symmachus had been wrong, so wrong ...
What now, she wondered. What had become of
Uriel Septim, and, more to the point, what did it mean for
her and Symmachus and Mournhold? Thinking back, Barenziah
guessed that their troubles were due to this false emperor,
Nightingale, or whoever he really was. He must have taken
Uriel Septim's place shortly before the unreasonable demands
on Mournhold had begun. That would explain why relations had
deteriorated so long (as humans judged time) after her offense.
Nightingale knew of Symmachus' famed loyalty to, and knowledge
of, the Septims and was making a pre-emptive strike. If that
were indeed the case they were all in terrible danger. She
and the children were under his hand here in Imperial City
and Symmachus left alone to face the troubles of Nightingale's
What must she do? Barenziah urged the children
ahead of her, a hand on each shoulder, her womanservant and
guards trailing behind. They had reached their waiting carriage
-- even though their apartment was only a few blocks from
the Palace, royal dignity forbade their walking, and for once,
Barenziah was glad of that. Even the carriage seemed a kind
of sanctuary now, false as she knew that feeling to be.
A boy dashed up to one of the guards and handed
him a letter, then pointed towards the carriage. The guard
brought it to her. The boy waited, eyes wide. The letter was
brief and complimentary and simply asked if King Eadwyre of
Wayrest, High Rock, might be granted an audience with her,
as he had heard much of her, and would be pleased to make
her acquaintance. Barenziah's first impulse was to refuse.
She wanted only to leave this city! Certainly she had no inclination
for any dalliances with a dazzled human. She looked up frowning
and one of the guard said, "The boy says his master awaits
your reply yonder." She looked in the direction indicated
and saw a handsome elderly man on horseback, surrounded by
a half-dozen courtiers and guards. He caught her eye and bowed
respectfully, removing his plumed hat.
"Very well," Barenziah said to the
boy, on impulse. "Tell your master he may call on me
tonight, after the dinner hour." The man looked polite
and grave, and rather worried, but not in the least lovesick.
to book index