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【书籍搬运】The Real Barenziah, v3 真实的巴兰兹雅,卷3

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原文地址:http://www.uesp.net/wiki/Skyrim:The_Real_Barenziah,_v3

全文翻译:

真实的巴兰兹雅

——无名氏

第3卷

在最初的几天里,巴兰兹雅因与朋友分别而心情沉重,但两周之后她就逐渐恢复了。尽管比原想的更为怀念斯特劳的陪伴,她终于又重新开始享受旅行了。他们的护卫是一队赤色守卫骑士,尽管与她以前相处过的商队护卫相比这些骑士更有纪律也更庄重,巴兰兹雅倒也挺喜欢他们。她不是没有尝试过勾引他们,但他们虽然和善,对她却总是恭恭敬敬,绝不逾矩。

私下里欣玛楚斯为此责备了她,说女王必须在任何时候都保有王家尊严。

“你是说我连点乐子都不能找?”她任性地问。

“没错,至少不能从像这些人一样的人里找。他们比你低贱。人们期望从领袖身上看见的是和蔼亲切,小姐,但绝不是放肆亲昵。在我们去往帝都的一路上,你都要表现得纯洁谦逊。”

巴兰兹雅做了个鬼脸。“在暗沼堡我可是非常纯洁谦逊。谁都知道精灵天生就风骚。每个人都这么说。”

“那么就并不是‘每个人’。有些是,有些不是。皇帝——还有我——都希望你能有判断能力而且品味良好。请让我提醒您,陛下,您能坐上哀伤要塞的王位并非是因为您的血统,而仅仅是因为泰伯·塞普丁乐于如此。如果他认为你不适合,你的统治从哪里开始就会在哪里结束。他要求获得任命的人聪明、服从、决断正确且对他绝对忠诚,而且他更看中女人品性的纯洁谦逊。我强烈建议你在举止上以我们的好德莱丽安为榜样,小姐。”

“那我宁可回暗沼堡去!”巴兰兹雅忿忿地打断他,被要在任何方面都模仿德莱丽安做个冷淡淑女的想法激怒了。

“完全没有这个选项,陛下。如果你对泰伯·塞普丁没有用,他就会确保你也不会被他的敌人利用。”将军盛气凌人地回应道,“如果你还希望自己的脑袋能好好呆在肩膀上,那就听我的忠告。而且容我多说一句,权力带来的是愉悦满足,与那些下贱同伴能带来的肉欲完全不同。”

他开始谈论艺术、文学、戏剧、音乐,以及在帝都举办的大型舞会。巴兰兹雅并非完全被他的威胁推着走,自己也越听越感兴趣。不过之后她还是小心翼翼地询问在帝都能否继续学习魔法。欣玛楚斯似乎对此要求很是赞赏,答应她会将其安排好。于是她胆子放大了些,说她注意到骑士中有三个是女人,询问自己能否,为防万一,偶尔与她们共同训练。将军看上去并不太欣赏这项提议,不过还是同意了,但强调说一起训练的只能是女人。

晚冬的天气虽然稍显寒冷却一直晴朗。他们在剩余旅程中遇到的都是这种好天气,于是在大道上行进很快。在旅途的最后一日春天追赶上了他们,冰雪开始融化,道路变得泥泞起来,处处都是水滴融化滴落的声音,虽然轻微却持久。这声音令人心情愉快。

=========

他们在日落时分步上跨入帝都的大桥。玫瑰霞光把都市刻板的雪白大理石建筑染成了雅致粉色,使整座城市都显得簇新、雄壮而无瑕。一条宽广大街向北直通宫殿,广场上各色人等各族人士摩肩接踵。夜幕降临,商店灯火点点熄灭,旅店窗窗柔光满溢,天幕上先是现出孤星,尔后漫天星光三两成群纷至沓来。就连小巷也宽阔而灯火通明。宫殿以东是法师公会的塔楼与大厅,以西则是一座巨型神龛,彩色玻璃窗在傍晚余晖中熠熠闪亮。

欣玛楚斯的居所富丽堂皇,距离宫殿两个街区,中间隔着神殿。(“真神神殿”,他们路过时欣玛楚斯介绍道,是一个由泰伯·塞普丁复兴的古老诺德教团。如果巴兰兹雅能被皇帝接受,那她就应做好加入教团的准备。)虽然这居所很是华美,却不大对得上巴兰兹雅的胃口。纯白的墙与家具稍微带着点哑金色,而地板是清一色的闪光黑色大理石,很是单调。如此色彩与微妙阴影的搭配使巴兰兹雅双目刺痛不已。

到了早上,欣玛楚斯与德莱丽安领她入宫。巴兰兹雅注意到他们碰上的每个人都对欣玛楚斯极为敬重,甚至可以说是谄媚。不过将军似乎倒是照单全收了。

他们被直接引领到皇帝面前。房间不大,却有很大的窗户。清晨的阳光透过窗格洒满地板,流淌过摆满奢华丰盛早餐的餐桌,倾洒在坐于桌后的男人身上,造成了一种逆光效果。一见他们进来,男人就立刻起身走向他们。“啊,朕最忠实的朋友欣玛楚斯,朕极度欢迎你的归来。”欣玛楚斯本想屈膝行礼,可皇帝满心欢喜,轻轻扶住黑精灵的双肩止住了他的动作。

而当泰伯·塞普丁转身看向巴兰兹雅时,她向他行了屈膝礼。

“巴兰兹雅,淘气的小偷跑犯。你好吗,孩子?过来,让朕好好看看你。啊,欣玛楚斯,她很迷人,非常迷人。这么多年来你为什么要把她藏在朕看不见的地方?房间里阳光是不是太刺眼了,孩子?需要朕把窗帘拉下来吗?啊,这是当然。”他挥手止住欣玛楚斯的抗议,没去叫仆人,反而亲手拉下了窗帘。“你们还是要原谅如此礼数不周,亲爱的客人们。尽管主人的疏忽不是什么好借口,但朕要思考更重要的事情。不过,啊,来和朕共进早餐吧。菜单里有黑沼泽产的上等油桃。”

他们在桌边坐好。巴兰兹雅诧异万分,因为泰伯·塞普丁与她一直勾勒出的阴沉灰暗魁梧战士的形象完全搭不上边。他中等身高,比欣玛楚斯整整矮了半个头,不过依旧是身形结实,动作灵活。他脸上挂着胜利者的微笑,一双明亮的——也可以说是目光锐利的——蓝眼睛,满面风霜,一头刻板华发。说他四十岁还是六十岁都有可能。在把餐点饮料推到他们面前后,他问她的问题与欣玛楚斯几天前提到的一模一样:她为什么要离家出走?难道她的监护人对她不够好?

“并非如此,陛下。”巴兰兹雅回答道,“事实上,他们待我很好——尽管有时我觉得做出这等蠢事的自己不配受到如此疼爱。”欣玛楚斯为她编好了一整套说辞,尽管心怀疑虑,巴兰兹雅还是依稿而念。马僮斯特劳骗她说她的监护人因为找不到合适的人选同她结婚,只好把她卖到瑞哈德去给人做小妾。结果真的有赤色守卫前来拜访,她吓得要死,就同斯特劳一起逃跑了。

泰伯·塞普丁似乎被故事本身迷住了,在听巴兰兹雅讲起她做商队护卫的经历时也是全神贯注。“简直像歌谣一样!”他说,“真神在上,朕要命令宫廷诗人给这故事配上曲子。那时你扮成了多帅气的男孩啊!”

“但欣玛楚斯将军说——”巴兰兹雅略显迟疑地顿了顿,但还是继续说了下去,“他说——嗯,我现在看上去不再像男孩了。最近几个月里,我……成长了许多。”她垂下视线,希望如此表现能让自己看上去更接近谦卑少女一些。

“他是个洞若观火的家伙,朕的忠诚朋友欣玛楚斯就是这样的人。”

“我知道我曾经是个非常愚蠢的姑娘,陛下。我乞求您的原谅,也乞求好心监护人的原谅。我……不久前我才意识到了这点,但我没脸回家。我不想回到暗沼堡去,陛下。我思念哀伤要塞。我的灵魂属于那里。”

“亲爱的孩子,你会回家的,朕向你保证。但是朕希望你在这里多呆一段时间,你要在这里为面对的朕即将交付于你的严峻任务做好准备。”

巴兰兹雅殷切地注视着他,心跳得很快。一切都像欣玛楚斯保证的那样顺利进行。对将军的感激像一阵暖流扫过她心间,但她还是小心把注意力集中在皇帝身上。“这是我的荣幸,陛下。我愿尽我所能为您与您的伟大帝国服务。”这些当然都是政治上的客套话,但巴兰兹雅却是真心这么想的。她对城市的宏伟与秩序井然很是敬畏,更为自己也是其中一分子而倍感兴奋。更何况,泰伯·塞普丁令她心动不已。

========

几天之后欣玛楚斯便动身前往哀伤要塞。在巴兰兹雅准备好登基之前,他作为总督依旧要履行职责,而在她登基后,他的身份就会变成首相。巴兰兹雅在德莱丽安的陪伴下居住在帝国宫殿的套房里,有几个老师专门指导她的女王教育。这段时间里她变得痴迷于魔法,却对历史与政治完全提不起兴趣。

时不时她会在宫殿花园中遇到泰伯·塞普丁,而他永远都会礼貌地问询她功课进展如何——虽然保持着笑容,他也依然会责备她不应对国家事务不感兴趣。尽管如此,他却很乐于在魔法上指导她,而历史和政治经他一说也变得有趣起来了。“他们都是活生生的人,孩子,而不是旧卷册里干巴巴的词条。”

随着她理解的加深,他们的讨论也愈发长久深入,也更加频繁。他向她讲述自己见到的一统泰姆瑞尔的预象,虽然每个种族各具特色并不混杂,但大家都共享同样的理想与追求,都在为联合起来的王国贡献力量。“总有些事情是世界通行的,但凡善良的智慧生物都认为其正确。”他说,“真神就是如此教导我们的。我们必须团结起来抵抗邪恶与残酷,抵抗那些天生异形——兽人,巨魔,哥布林,以及其他更糟糕的生物——而不是彼此间自相残杀。”在他谈论起自己的梦想之时他的蓝眼睛闪闪发亮,而仅仅是坐在他身边听他讲话就让巴兰兹雅倍感愉快。一旦他靠近她,她临近他那侧的身体就会发热,仿佛他就是个暗自燃烧的火盆。而要是他们的手偶然碰上,她全身上下都会暗暗颤抖一番,仿佛他的身体充满了闪电咒文的能量。

终于有一天,出乎她意料之外,他双手捧起她的脸,轻轻吻上她的唇。片刻之后她后退,讶然于自己情感的激烈程度,而他立刻道歉。“我……朕……朕本意并非如此。只是……你太美了,亲爱的。如此之美。”他看着她,宽厚大度的目光里燃烧着无助的渴求。

她别过身子,泪珠顺着脸颊流淌下来。

“你生朕的气了?同朕说说话。拜托!”

巴兰兹雅摇了摇头。“我绝不会生您的气,陛下。我……我爱您。我知道这不应该,但我无法自持。”

“朕有皇后。”他说,“她是个善良而贞洁的女子,是朕的孩子与未来继承人的母亲。朕没有办法放开她——但是朕与她之间无话可说,没有任何精神交流。她想要的朕并不是真实的朕。朕是全泰姆瑞尔最具权力的人,然而……巴兰兹雅,朕……我……我想我也是最孤独的。”他突然起身,“权力!”语气出奇地轻蔑,“若众神允许,我宁可用大部分权力去交换青春与爱情。”

“但是您比我认识的任何男人都要强壮,都要精神,而且更为活力四射。”

他用力摇着头。“现在,也许你说的没错。但现在的我已经比不上昨天的我,去年的我,十年前的我。我能感受到凡人性的叮刺,这种刺痛很疼。”

“如果我能舒缓您的疼痛,请允许我。”巴兰兹雅朝他走去,向他伸出双手。

“不行。我不能夺走你的纯洁。”

“我没有这么纯洁。”

“怎么会?”皇帝突然双眉紧蹙,口气也顿时严厉了起来。

巴兰兹雅觉得嘴巴发干。她刚才都说了什么?但说出口的话也收不回来。他总会知道的。“是斯特劳。”她声音颤抖,口吃起来,“我……那时我很孤独,现在也是。但是……我不像您这么坚强。”她羞愧地垂下眼帘,“我……我想我配不上您,陛下——”

“不,不对,不是这样。巴兰兹雅。我的巴兰兹雅。这段感情不会长久的。你对哀伤要塞、对帝国都有自己的职责,而我也有我的。但是在我们还可以的时候——让我们分享我们所有,我们所能,然后祈求真神原谅我们的脆弱?”

泰伯·塞普丁张开双臂,而巴兰兹雅,无言且自愿地,步入了他的怀抱。

=========

为了庆祝交往一个月,巴兰兹雅的皇帝情人送给她一枚华丽的星彩蓝宝石戒指。“你正在火山口上面蹦跶,孩子。”巴兰兹雅欣赏戒指时,德莱丽安警告道。

“怎么会?我们在一起,彼此都很快乐。我们谁都没伤害。欣玛楚斯要求我有判断能力还要谨慎:又有哪个男人要好于我现在选上的这位呢?而且我们再谨慎不过了,公开场合他待我如同女儿。”泰伯·塞普丁在夜访时走的是密道,全宫殿里只有少数几个人知道其存在——皇帝本人和几个靠得住的保镖。

“他把你变成了奴隶主饲养的狗儿,把你吃干抹净了。难道你没注意到皇后和她的儿子对你有多冷淡?”

巴兰兹雅耸耸肩。就算在她与塞普丁发展成情人之前,皇帝家人对她也只有客套寒暄罢了。十分老套空洞的寒暄。“那又如何?反正握有权力的是泰伯·塞普丁。”

“但未来握有权力的可是他的儿子。就算我求你,千万别让事情发展成他母亲公开责备你。”

“那根柴火棍就算在晚餐对话时也不能让她的丈夫提起兴趣,这个怎么能怪我呢?”

“别公开,这就是我的全部要求。她不怎么在乎,确实如此——但是她的孩子们爱她,而你不想让他们变成你的敌人。我是说,泰伯·塞普丁活不到那么长。”一见巴兰兹雅沉下脸,德莱丽安立刻换了一套说法,“人类都很短命。用我们长生种族的老话讲,朝生暮死。他们来来去去就像季节变化一样,但强者的家族可以延续很长时间。如果你要从你的关系中获得持续收益,你就必须和整个家族成为朋友。啊,不过你太年轻,还是由人类养大的,我怎么才能让你看清楚这一切呢!如果你能明智地听从我的建议,若是塞普丁确实开创了一个王朝,你和哀伤要塞就大概都能活到能亲眼看着这个王朝灭亡的那一天,就像你现在正在见证其兴起一样。这就是人类历史延续的方式。他们如潮水般起落不能持续,他们的城市与国家像春花一样盛开,却在夏日骄阳下枯萎死去。而我们精灵则可以忍耐。一整年在我们眼里只相当于他们的几个小时,只是一天的十分之一罢了。”

巴兰兹雅只是笑笑。她知道关于她和泰伯·塞普丁的流言已经传开了。她挺喜欢这种关注,因为除了皇后和她的儿子其他人似乎都已经拜倒在她的石榴裙下。歌手歌唱她暗色的美丽与她迷人的举止。她合于时尚,正接受爱情的滋润——就算这只是暂时的,可世上又有什么不是呢?这是有生以来她第一次感到如此幸福,每个白天都充盈着欢乐和满足,而到了入夜后则更为美好。

========

“我到底怎么了?”巴兰兹雅悲叹道。“你看,我的裙子全都不合身了。我的腰线怎么了?我变胖了?”巴兰兹雅郁闷地看向镜子,里面的倒影胳膊与腿都还很细瘦,可腰却很明显粗了一圈。

德莱丽安只能耸肩。“虽然你还很年轻,但你应该是怀孕了。与人类的持续性结合会使你在很早的时候就怀上孩子。我觉得你别无选择,只能去和皇帝商量一下了,毕竟你受他掌管。我觉得最好的选择就是,如果他同意,你就直接去往哀伤要塞,然后在那里把孩子生下来。”

“单独一个人?”巴兰兹雅把手放在她肿胀的肚子上,眼眶变得湿润起来了。她全身上下都在渴求与她的爱人一起分享这爱情的果实。“他绝不会同意的。他现在才不会和我分开。你等着瞧好了。”

德莱丽安摇了摇头。虽然没再说些什么,但她脸上写满的不再是平常的冰冷责备,而是纯粹的同情与悲伤。

那天晚上,当泰伯·塞普丁惯常来访时,巴兰兹雅把这消息告诉了他。

“有孩子了?”他大惊失色,不对,是吓呆了。“你确定?可别人告诉我精灵不会在这么年轻的时候就怀孕……”

巴兰兹雅强挤出一道笑容。“我又怎能确定?我还从未——”

“我去传唤我的医者。”

出现的医者,一个中年高精灵,证实巴兰兹雅的确怀孕了,以及这种事情简直是前所未有。这证明了陛下神勇无比,医者奉承道。可泰伯·塞普丁却对他咆哮起来。

“绝对不能如此!”他说,“流掉它。朕命令你!”

“陛下,”医者倒吸了一口凉气,“我不能……我不可以——”

“你当然可以,你个无能的蠢蛋。”皇帝打断他,“朕如此命令了,你就照做。”

巴兰兹雅,直到先前都还一言不发,只能因恐惧而双目圆睁,此时却突然从床上坐起来了。“不能这样!”她尖叫道,“不能这样!您刚才说了些什么啊?”

“孩子,”泰伯·塞普丁在她身旁坐下,他的脸上挂着特定的胜利者微笑,“我很抱歉,真的。但事情不能变成这样。你的孩子会成为我儿子以及他儿子们的威胁。我不能把话讲得更透了。”

“但是我怀着的孩子是您的!”她哭了。

“不对。你怀着的东西现在只是一种可能性,一种不确定,既没有灵魂也没有被赋予生命。我不允许它能拥有这些东西。我禁止它拥有。”他又恶狠狠地瞪了医者一眼,而那个精灵开始发抖了。

“陛下。这是她的孩子。对精灵而言怀上孩子是少有的事情。没有精灵女子能在一生中怀孕超过四次,而四次也是非常少见的。通常的次数是两次,甚至有些人完全没生出孩子,而其他有些只能生出一个来。如果我把这个孩子流掉,陛下,她今后可能就再也不能生育了。”

“你原先向朕保证过她完全不会怀孕。朕完全不信你的预言。”

巴兰兹雅光着身子跳下床,直接朝门跑去。她并不知道自己要去哪里,只知道绝对不能留在那里。可还没等到碰上门,她就被黑暗彻底吞噬了。

=======

她在疼痛中醒来,只感到空虚,一种原先明明有、明明还活着,可现在却死了永远消失了的空虚。德莱丽安帮她舒缓疼痛,清理掉依旧不时从她双腿间流出的鲜血。但是没什么能填补那份空虚。没有什么能取代空虚。

皇帝送来了许多礼物,还有各类鲜花。他也亲自来探望过,但每次来身边都带着一群人。巴兰兹雅最开始对如此探望感到很高兴,但泰伯·塞普丁再也不会夜访了——而一段时间之后,她也不希望他再来了。

几周过去了。在她身体完全复原之后,德莱丽安便通知她欣玛楚斯写信过来,要求她早于原计划开赴哀伤要塞。通告发出的当天她就要启程。

她获得了一大群侍从,一份与女王地位相衬的相当数目的嫁妆,以及在帝都大门前精心设计且令人永生难忘的启程典礼。有些人遗憾于她的离去,用泪水与忠告表达了他们的悲伤。但另外一些人非但无动于衷,更是无所表示。

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The Real Barenziah, Part 3
by Anonymous
Unauthorized biography of the famous Queen Mother of Morrowind, Volume 3


Note: This is part of the revised series of books that appeared in MorrowindOblivion, and Skyrim. InDaggerfall, this content appears in The Real Barenziah, Part V and The Real Barenziah, Part VI with some minor modifications.

For several days, Barenziah felt a weight of sorrow at her separation from her friends. But by the second week out her spirits began to rise a little. She found that she enjoyed being on the road again, although she missed Straw's companionship more than she would have thought. They were escorted by a troop of Redguard knights with whom she felt comfortable, although these were much more disciplined, and decorous, than the guards of the merchant caravans she had spent time with. They were genial but respectful toward her despite her attempts at flirtation.
Symmachus scolded her privately, saying a queen must maintain royal dignity at all times.
"You mean I'm never to have any fun?" she inquired petulantly.
"Ai. Not with such as these. They are beneath you. Graciousness is to be desired from those in authority, Milady. Familiarity is not. You will remain chaste and modest while you are at theImperial City."
Barenziah made a face. "I might as well be back at Darkmoor Keep. Elves are promiscuous by nature, you know. Everyone says so."
"'Everyone' is wrong, then. Some are, some aren't. The Emperor -- and I -- expect you to display both discrimination and good taste. Let me remind you, Your Highness, that you hold the throne ofMournhold not by right of blood but solely at the pleasure of Tiber Septim. If he judges you unsuitable, your reign will end ere it begins. He requires intelligence, obedience, discretion, and total loyalty of all his appointees, and he favors chastity and modesty in women. I strongly suggest you model your deportment after our good Drelliane. Milady."
"I'd as lief be back in Darkmoor!" Barenziah snapped resentfully, offended at the thought of emulating the frigid, prudish Drelliane in any way.
"That is not an option. Your Highness. If you are of no use to Tiber Septim, he will see to it that you are of no use to his enemies either," the general said portentously. "If you would keep your head on your shoulders, take heed. Let me add that power offers pleasures other than those of carnality and cavorting with base company."
He began to speak of art, literature, drama, music, and the grand balls thrown at the Imperial Court. Barenziah listened with growing interest, spurred on not entirely by his threats. But afterward she asked timidly if she might continue her study of magic while at the Imperial City. Symmachus seemed pleased at this and promised to arrange it. Encouraged, she then said that she noted three of their knights escort were women, and asked if she might train a little with them, just for the sake of exercise. The general looked less delighted at this, but gave his consent, though stressing it would only be with the women.
The late winter weather held fair, though slightly frosty, for the rest of their journey so that they traveled quickly over firm roads. On the last day of their trip, spring seemed to have arrived at last for there were hints of a thaw. The road grew muddy underfoot, and everywhere one could hear water trickling and dripping faintly but steadily. It was a welcome sound.

***
They came to the great bridge that crossed into the Imperial City at sunset. The rosy glow turned the stark white marble edifices of the metropolis a delicate pink. It all looked very new and grand and immaculate. A broad avenue led north toward the Palace. A crowd of people of all sorts and races filled the wide concourse. Lights winked out in the shops and on in the inns as dusk fell and stars came out singly then by twos and threes. Even the side streets were broad and brightly illuminated. Near the Palace the towers of an immense Mages Guildhall reared toward the east, while westward the stained glass windows of a huge tabernacle glittered in the dying light.
Symmachus had apartments in a magnificent house two blocks from the palace, past the temple. ("The Temple of the One," he identified as they passed it, an ancient Nordic cult which Tiber Septim had revived. He said that Barenziah would be expected to become a member should she prove acceptable to the Emperor.) The place was quite splendid--although little to Barenziah's taste. The walls and furnishings were done in utter pristine white, relieved only by touches of dull gold, and the floors in dully gleaming black marble. Barenziah's eyes ached for color and the interplay of subtle shadings.
In the morning Symmachus and Drelliane escorted her to the Imperial Palace. Barenziah noted that everyone they met greeted Symmachus with a deferential respect in some cases bordering on obsequiousness. The general seemed to take it for granted.
They were ushered directly into the imperial presence. Morning sun flooded a small room through a large window with tiny panes, washing over a sumptuously laden breakfast table and the single man who sat there, dark against the light. He leapt to his feet as they entered and hurried toward them. "Ah, Symmachus our most loyal friend, we welcome your return most gladly." His hands held Symmachus' shoulders briefly, fondly, halting the deep genuflection the Dark Elf had been in the process of effecting.
Barenziah curtseyed as Tiber Septim turned to her.
"Barenziah, our naughty little runaway. How do you do, child? Here, let us have a look at you. Why, Symmachus, she's charming, absolutely charming. Why have you hidden her from us all these years? Is the light too much, child? Shall we draw the hangings? Yes, of course." He waved aside Symmachus' protests and drew the curtains himself, not troubling to summon a servant. "You will pardon us for this discourtesy toward yourselves, our dear guests. We've much to think of, though that's scant excuse for hospitality's neglect. But ah! pray join us. There's some excellent nectarines from Black Marsh."
They settled themselves at the table. Barenziah was dumbfounded. Tiber Septim was nothing like the grim, grey, giant warrior she'd pictured. He was of average height, fully half a head shorter than tall Sym­machus, although he was well-knit of figure and lithe of movement. He had a winning smile, bright -- indeed piercing -- blue eyes, and a full head of stark white hair above a lined and weathered face. He might have been any age from forty to sixty. He pressed food and drink upon them, then repeated the question the gen­eral had asked her days ago: Why had she left home? Had her guardians been unkind to her?
"No, Excellency," Barenziah replied, "in truth, no -- although I fancied so at times." Symmachus had fabricated a story for her, and Barenziah told it now, although with a certain misgiving. The stable-boy, Straw, had convinced her that her guardians, unable to find a suitable husband for her, meant to sell her off as a concubine in Rihad; and when a Redguard had indeed come, she had panicked and fled with Straw.
Tiber Septim seemed fascinated and listened raptly as she provided details of her life as a merchant caravan escort. "Why, 'tis like a ballad!" he said. "By the One, we'll have the Court Bard set it to music. What a charming boy you must have made."
"General Symmachus said--" Barenziah stopped in some confusion, then proceeded. "He said -- well, that I no longer look much like a boy. I have... grown in the past few months." She lowered her gaze in what she hoped approximated maidenly modesty.
"He's a very discerning fellow, is our loyal friend Symmachus."
"I know I've been a very foolish girl, Excellency. I must crave your pardon, and that of my kind guardians. I... I realized that some time ago, but I was too ashamed to go back home. But I don't want to return to Darkmoor now. Excellency, I long for Mournhold. My soul pines for my own country."
"Our dear child. You shall go home, we promise you. But we pray you remain with us a little longer, that you may prepare yourself for the grave and solemn task with which we shall charge you."
Barenziah gazed at him earnestly, heart beating fast. It was all working just as Symmachus had said it would. She felt a warm flush of gratitude toward him, but was careful to keep her attention focused on the Emperor. "I am honored, Excellency, and wish most earnestly to serve you and this great Empire you have built in any way I can." It was the politic thing to say, to be sure -- but Barenziah really meant it. She was awed at the magnificence of the city and the discipline and order evident everywhere, and moreover was excited at the prospect of being a part of it all. And she felt quite taken by the gentle Tiber Septim.

***
After a few days Symmachus left for Mournhold to take up the duties of a governor until Barenziah was ready to assume the throne, after which he would become her Prime Minister. Barenziah, with Drelliane as chaperone, took up residence in a suite of rooms at the Imperial Palace. Several tutors were provided her, in all the fields deemed seemly for a queenly education. During this time she became deeply interested in the magical arts, but she found the study of history and politics not at all to her prefer­ence.
On occasion she met with Tiber Septim in the Palace gardens and he would unfailingly and politely inquire as to her progress -- and chide her, although with a smile, for her disinterest at matters of state. However, he was always happy to instruct her on the finer points of magic, and he could make even history and politics seem interesting. "They're people, child, not dry facts in a dusty volume," he said.
As her understanding broadened, their discussions grew longer, deeper, more frequent. He spoke to her of his vision of a united Tamriel, each race separate and distinct but with shared ideals and goals, all contrib­uting to the common weal. "Some things are universal, shared by all sentient folk of good will," he said. "So the One teaches us. We must unite against the malicious and the brutish, the miscreated -- the Orcstrollsgoblins, and other worse creatures -- and not strive against one another." His blue eyes would light up as he stared into his dream, and Barenziah was delighted just to sit and listen to him. If he drew close to her, the side of her body next to him would glow as if he were a smoldering blaze. If their hands met she would tingle all over as if his body were charged with a shock spell.
One day, quite unexpectedly, he took her face in his hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She drew back after a few moments, astonished by the violence of her feelings, and he apologized instantly. "I... we... we didn't mean to do that. It's just -- you are so beautiful, dear. So very beautiful." He was looking at her with hopeless yearning in his generous eyes.
She turned away, tears streaming down her face.
"Are you angry with us? Speak to us. Please."
Barenziah shook her head. "I could never be angry with you, Excellency. I... I love you. I know it's wrong, but I can't help it."
"We have a consort," he said. "She is a good and virtuous woman, the mother of our children and future heirs. We could never put her aside -- yet there is nothing between us and her, no sharing of the spirit. She would have us be other than what we are. We are the most powerful person in all of Tamriel, and... Barenziah, we... I... I think I am the most lonely as well." He stood up suddenly. "Power!" he said with sublime contempt. "I'd trade a goodly share of it for youth and love if the gods would only sanction it."
"But you are strong and vigorous and vital, more than any man I've ever known."
He shook his head vehemently. "Today, perhaps. Yet I am less than I was yesterday, last year, ten years ago. I feel the sting of my mortality, and it is painful."
"If I can ease your pain, let me." Barenziah moved toward him, hands outstretched.
"No. I would not take your innocence from you."
"I'm not that innocent."
"How so?" The Emperor's voice suddenly grated harshly, his brows knitted.
Barenziah's mouth went dry. What had she just said? But she couldn't turn back know. He would know. "There was Straw," she faltered. "I... I was lonely too. Am lonely. And not so strong as you." She cast her eyes down in abashment. "I... I guess I'm not worthy, Excellency--"
"No, no. Not so. Barenziah. My Barenziah. It cannot last for long. You have a duty toward Mourn­hold, and a duty toward the Empire. I must tend toward mine as well. But while we may -- shall we share what we have, what we can, and pray the One forgives us our frailty?"
Tiber Septim held out his arms -- and wordlessly, willingly, Barenziah stepped into his embrace.

***
"You caper on the edge of a volcano, child," Drelliane admonished as Barenziah admired the splendid star sapphire ring her imperial lover had given her to celebrate their one-month anniversary.
"How so? We make one another happy. We harm no one. Symmachus bade me be discriminating and discreet. Who better could I choose? And we've been most discreet. He treats me like a daughter in public." Tiber Septim's nightly visits were made through a secret passage that only few in the Palace were privy to -- himself and a handful of trusted bodyguards.
"He slavers over you like a cur his supper. Have you not noticed the coolness of the Empress and her son toward you?"
Barenziah shrugged. Even before she and Septim had become lovers, she'd received no more from his family than bare civility. Threadbare civility. "What matter? It is Tiber who holds the power."
"But it is his son who holds the future. Do not put his mother up to public scorn, I beg you."
"Can I help it if that dry stick of a woman cannot hold her husband's interest even in conversation at dinner?"
"Have less to say in public. That is all I ask. She matters little, it is true -- but her children love her, and you do not want them as enemies. Tiber Septim has not long to live. I mean," Drelliane amended quickly at Barenziah's scowl, "humans are all short-lived. Ephemeral, as we of the Elder Races say. They come and go as the seasons -- but the families of the powerful ones live on for a time. You must be a friend to this family if you would see lasting profit from your relationship. Ah, but how can I make you see truly, you who are so young and human-bred as well! If you take heed, and wisely, you and Mournhold are like to live to see the fall of Septim's dynasty, if indeed he has founded one, just as you have witnessed its rise. It is the way of human history. They ebb and flow like the inconstant tides. Their cities and dominions bloom like spring flowers, only to wither and die in the summer sun. But the Elves endure. We are as a year to their hour, a decade to their day."
Barenziah just laughed. She knew that rumors abounded about her and Tiber Septim. She enjoyed the attention, for all save the Empress and her son seemed captivated by her. Minstrels sang of her dark beauty and her charming ways. She was in fashion, and in love -- and if it was temporary, well, what was not? She was happy for the first time she could remember, each of her days filled with joy and pleasure. And the nights were even better.

***
"What is wrong with me?" Barenziah lamented. "Look, not one of my skirts fit. What's become of my waistline? Am I getting fat?" Barenziah regarded her thin arms and legs and her undeniably thickened waist in the mirror with displeasure.
Drelliane shrugged. "You appear to be with child, young as you are. Constant pairing with a human has brought you to early fertility. I see no choice but for you to speak with the Emperor about it. You are in his power. It would be best, I think, for you to go directly to Mournhold if he would agree to it, and bear the child there."
"Alone?" Barenziah placed her hands on her swollen belly, tears forming in her eyes. Everything in her yearned to share the fruit of her love with her lover. "He'll never agree to that. He won't be parted from me now. You'll see."
Drelliane shook her head. Although she said no more, a look of sympathy and sorrow had replaced her usual cool scorn.
That night Barenziah told Tiber Septim when he came to her for their usual assignation.
"With child?" He looked shocked. No, stunned. "You're sure of it? But I was told Elves do not bear at so young an age..."
Barenziah forced a smile. "How can I be sure? I've never--"
"I shall have my healer fetched."
The healer, a High Elf of middle years, confirmed that Barenziah was indeed pregnant, and that such a thing had never before been known to happen. It was a testimony to His Excellency's potency, the healer said in sycophantic tones. Tiber Septim roared at him.
"This must not be!" he said. "Undo it. We command you."
"Sire," the healer gaped at him. "I cannot... I may not--"
"Of course you can, you incompetent dullard," the Emperor snapped. "It is our express wish that you do so."
Barenziah, till then silent and wide-eyed with terror, suddenly sat up in bed. "No!" she screamed. "No! What are you saying?"
"Child," Tiber Septim sat down beside her, his face wearing one of his winning smiles. "I'm so sorry. Truly. But this cannot be. Your issue would be a threat to my son and his sons. I shall no more put it plainly than that."
"The child I bear is yours!" she wailed.
"No. It is now but a possibility, a might-be, not yet gifted with a soul or quickened into life. I will not have it so. I forbid it." He gave the healer another hard stare and the Elf began to tremble.
"Sire. It is her child. Children are few among the Elves. No Elven woman conceives more than four times, and that is very rare. Two is the usual number. Some bear none, even, and some only one. If I take this one from her, Sire, she may not conceive again."
"You promised us she would not bear to us. We've little faith in your prognostications."
Barenziah scrambled naked from the bed and ran for the door, not knowing where she was going, only that she could not stay. She never reached it. Darkness overtook her.

***
She awoke to pain, and a feeling of emptiness. A void where something used to be, something that used to be alive, but now was dead and gone forever. Drelliane was there to soothe the pain and clean up the blood that still pooled at times between her legs. But there was nothing to fill the emp­tiness. There was nothing to take the place of the void.
The Emperor sent magnificent gifts and vast arrangements of flowers, and came on short visits, always well-attended. Barenziah received these visits with pleasure at first. But Tiber Septim came no more at night -- and after some time nor did she wish him to.
Some weeks passed, and when she was completely physically recovered, Drelliane informed her that Symmachus had written to request she come to Mournhold earlier than planned. It was announced that she would leave forthwith.
She was given a grand retinue, an extensive trousseau befitting a queen, and an elaborate and impressive ceremonial departure from the gates of the Imperial City. Some people were sorry to see her leave, and expressed their sadness in tears and expostulations. But some others were not, and did not.

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